Impossible Rescue – Complex nonfiction for reading aloud

A colleague of mine, Andrea, read this aloud to her fifth grade students. They were riveted, completely enthralled. In my next post, I’ll explain how Andrea tackles helping her students comprehend complex nonfiction during read alouds. I hope to share some of her students’ work as well. For now, here’s my review of the book!

The Impossible Rescue: The True Story of an Amazing Arctic Adventure

Martin W. Sandler. 2012. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press. 176 pp. US$22.99.

Imagine. Alaskan terrain. Winter. 1898. You have 400 reindeer and 1600 pounds worth of provisions you need to move 700 miles in less than eight week. To rescue 300 whalers whose ships are frozen at a standstill and who will starve if you don’t get there soon. Add to that the unpredictable weather of the Arctic. Blizzards. Fog. Mountains. Ice. And then it all gets worse.

This may sound like a good story for a novel, but this was the reality of the Overland Relief Expedition team that engaged in a treacherous adventure risking their lives and the lives of many others to save these sailors. Sandler tells this story in the new action packed, absolutely gripping book The Impossible Rescue. Readers will not be able to put this book down as the men and women involved face one danger after another.

Winter came early in September 1897 and the crews on 8 whaling ships find themselves trapped in the ice. Two of the ships are completely destroyed by the ice. A ninth ship escapes and makes it way down to San Francisco with the desperate news of the other ships. President William McKinley orders the rescue mission to be launched and, in late November, the Revenue Cutter Service ship Bear leaves for Seattle to head to the Arctic. When the Bear reaches frozen ice and cannot go any further, three members volunteer to go overland 1500 miles to reach the whalers. They are charged with recruiting two herds of reindeer at stops along the way and additional team members to help them make their way.

Meanwhile the crews of the destroyed ships, over one hundred men, are lodging at a whaling station in Point Barrow – in very close quarters. Many of the men become unruly and unhelpful to their hosts. Somebody even digs up a local person’s dead husband and steals his mittens. Sanitation and cleanliness seem hopeless. Scurvy develops, debilitating the health of the sailors even further. Starvation is a stark prospect.

Committed to rescuing these desperate men, the Overland Relief Expedition team endures an incredibly difficult journey, splitting up at certain points and regrouping. They quickly learn that you do not ride a dog sled, but instead you run next to it or in front of it helping the dogs along – on sunny days or in blizzards for miles and miles. Paths are not straight and flat, but instead filled with numerous obstacles like boulders of ice. Driving a reindeer sled is a completely different experience and you can end up getting dragged along through the snow if you are not careful. Even in the blowing snow, keep an eye out for wooden crosses posted in the ground and look for a message from another team member tucked between the boards. Really, the fact that this rescue succeeded still feels unbelievable over a hundred years later. Sheer will, undaunted courage and the generosity of many fellow human beings contributed to the success of this perilous endeavor.

One of the team members, Dr. Call, brought a camera with him, a fairly new contraption at that point and Sandler has included numerous photos that reveal the bleak conditions of this journey. The grim faces of the team members and the indigenous people peer out at you from beneath heavy, fur fringed hoods with snow and ice, sometimes blowing, all around them. David Jarvis, the commander of the team, kept a detailed journal and others wrote about the trip later. Sandler has tapped these primary sources to create a vivid narrative of the harrowing journey they experienced. A timeline at the end of the book can aide the reader in keeping track of people and events.

When the team arrives in Point Barrow on March 29, the perilous journey is not over by any means. They will not be rescued until the Bear breaks through the ice and reaches them on August 1st. Sandler’s gripping tale will hold the reader’s attention to the very end.

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