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Ada Blackjack: A True Story of Survival in the Arctic    by Jennifer Niven order for
Ada Blackjack
by Jennifer Niven
Order:  USA  Can
Hyperion, 2003 (2003)

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* *   Reviewed by Anise Hollingshead

Ada Blackjack is the true story of a native Alaskan Inuit woman. She was the only survivor of a 1921 expedition to Wrangel Island, a remote, uninhabited island in the East Siberian Sea. When a relief party reached the island after the expedition had been there for two years, only Ada remained out of the original group of five.

Ada Blackjack was a young, divorced parent of a little boy, when she was approached to join a group of men on an expedition to Wrangel Island. They intended to set up camp for a year, exploring the island for future use. The four white men of the expedition hoped to get several Inuit families and a few singles to join their party to help with the work - especially hunting and sewing, both of which would be crucial to Arctic survival. Desperately in need of money for her tubercular son, Ada agreed to join in order to sew for the men. No other natives would come. Though reluctant to be the only woman, in the end Ada went. Two years later she was the only survivor rescued from Wrangel Island. The press sensationalized her, and many untrue and wild stories were circulated. Ada was a quiet woman, who only spoke publicly once in her entire life about her experience on Wrangel Island, to refute some of the tales.

The author, Jennifer Niven, first learned about Ada Blackjack while researching her first novel, The Ice Master: The Doomed 1913 Voyage of the Karluk. She discovered that one of the crew members who survived being stranded on Wrangel Island for a year after the Karluk sank, came back there eight years later with three other men and one woman, Ada. Niven was intrigued by the entire expedition and especially by the dearth of information about Ada. She unearthed several documents, papers, letters, and diaries that helped shed light on Ada, whose story had never really been told.

While concentrating mainly on Ada, the author has also included intertwining stories of the four men. Why they went, what they hoped to accomplish, and what they did while there, is all painstakingly researched and referenced, with fascinating detail. The abysmal lack of preparation seems incredible to one reading about it from a distance, as is the fact that all their families were in full support of their decision to camp at this forbidding island, north of Siberia, with only six months of supplies and the hope of good hunting to sustain them. The journals they kept supply insight into daily camp life, in vivid terms. Their stories and Ada's are the main focus of the first half of the book.

However, the latter part of the book focusses less on Ada, and more on the maneuverings of the people involved in the repercussions of the failed expedition. This isn't as interesting to read about, and the end of the book actually comes suddenly without warning, which leaves the reader feeling slightly flat. But Ada Blackjack is an engrossing story for the most part. Arctic survival tales are always interesting, and this is no exception.

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