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Ada Blackjack: A True Story of Survival in the Arctic
ISBN: 0-7868-6863-5

By Jennifer Niven
Review by: Renee Faucher


Vilhjalmur Stefansson, a Canadian explorer, sent four young men to represent his interests on an expedition to the Arctic. They were expected to claim Wrangel Island, an arctic territory with dubious ownership, collect furs, and keep detailed journals of the experience. Ada Blackjack: A True Story of Survival in the Arctic by Jennifer Niven cites information from many sources in an attempt to recreate that unsuccessful venture to claim Wrangel Island before Russia did.

Eskimos were hired to ease the hardship of daily life but one woman, Ada Blackjack–hired as a seamstress, fulfilled the obligation to make the journey. Only enough provisions were brought for six months and the team lacked the appropriate equipment for seal hunting since they refused to pay a high price for skin boats while collecting provisions. These explorers were expected to live off the land for the remainder of their time on the island. Due to poor planning, false assurances, and seasonal game, the expedition faced starvation.

With hope to reach Siberia and send a supply ship back, three of the men left Ada Blackjack and Lorne Knight behind. Knight was too ill with scurvy to travel. Blackjack, though of full Eskimo origin, had no experience with the skills needed to survive in the Arctic: hunting, trapping, shooting, building igloos, and surviving on what a land of rock and ice could provide. Knight eventually succumbed to his illness and left Blackjack alone.

In Ada Blackjack: A True Story of Survival in the Arctic, Niven presents a conundrum of truth versus fiction. After all, truth in this “story” is a jig-saw of crystalline fragments. This story is recreated in such a way that it reads like a novel and, after reminding oneself that it is a “true story,” the reader may become suspicious of the “truth” behind the tale. After all, the truth is full of lies. Truth refracts through the prism of perspective and interpretation...of the journals of the men on the expedition and of Harold Noice, who altered those journals, and others like Vilhjalmur Stefansson, who publicized and recreated some truths to sell his books and lectures. Niven draws from many sources to dramatize and record these events–though how can she know what Blackjack was thinking before she kept her own journal? In addition, remorse and melancholy choked much of what Blackjack revealed to the public.

Sometimes the delineation between the meaning of hero and survivor is difficult to define. One possible meaning may be interpreted as “one who shows great courage.” In society’s mind today, perhaps, the meaning of “hero” is more along the lines of “one who risks all to save another.” The one who embraces risk to save one’s self is a survivor. In reading the account of Ada Blackjack’s story, it still seems difficult to apply the above meaning of hero to Blackjack...she persevered regardless of her lack of courage and was able to function by disassociating her fear. She rose to a challenge as a survivor despite physical and emotional despair. As with many women of note in that era, strong women were seen as morally or mentally corrupt. Therefore, Blackjack’s achievement in the Arctic was held under suspicion by her rescuers and the news media. How could a mere woman, and a native one–at that!, survive while educated and sophisticated white men could not?

This is an incredible story–not simply “about” Ada Blackjack– that will entertain and engage the reader. Contrary to what the title suggests, this is really the story of the entire expedition and how it changed the lives of all those related to it. Niven dramatizes conversations and brings to light the thoughts of Blackjack’s character during her struggles with the ease of a third person omniscient narrator. As with much of history, no one can really say with complete certainty what happened or what someone was thinking eighty years prior. This seems more like a well-researched historical novel, than an historical record.

Blackjack’s personal growth in an inhospitable environment was further countered by questionable success in her life after the Arctic. Nonetheless, she was a survivor and her name persists. Whether or not Ada Blackjack is a hero, the reader will have to decide for herself.

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