Book Review: Rescue At The Top of The World by Shawn Shallow

Topic & Content

Published in 2005, this is a dramatized narrative of the Overland Relief Expedition where three men of the U.S. Revenue Cutter Bear, along with Alaskan natives, drove a herd of reindeer some 1,500 miles across Alaska to rescue a group of stranded whalers at Point Barrow in the winter of 1897 – 98. The book is organized as follows:

Ch. 1: Jim – It BeginsCh. 9: Jarvis – The LandingCh. 17: Jarvis – Charlie ArtisarlookCh. 25: Lopp – The Boys
Ch. 2: Jim – TrappedCh. 10: Jarvis – The SplitCh. 18: Jim – More DisputesCh. 26: Jarvis – Finding Lopp
Ch. 3: Jim – BelvedereCh. 11: Jarvis – No DeerCh. 19: Lopp – The MissionaryCh. 27: Jim – Scurvy Gets Worse
Ch. 4: Jim – Orca’s GraveyardCh. 12: Jim – NavarchCh. 20: Jarvis – Christians on the MissionCh. 28: Lopp – First Casualty
Ch. 5: Jim – Time to LeaveCh. 13: Jarvis – TiltonCh. 21: Jim – The Salvation ArmyCh. 29: Jarvis – The Reunion
Ch. 6: Jim – Life in the Old Kelley HouseCh. 14: Jarvis – The HerdCh. 22: Jarvis – PerninyukCh. 30: Lopp – The Mountains
Ch. 7: Jarvis – The Cutter BearCh. 15: Jim – The Eskimo HuntCh. 23: Jarvis – The CrossingCh. 31: Jarvis – No Help for the Last Miles
Ch. 8: Jarvis – Bear ReturnsCh. 16: Jarvis – BlizzardsCh. 24: Jim – DeprivationCh. 32: Jim – Dying Men’s Letters

Each chapter is fairly short, usually, only a few pages and most of the chapters alternate between the perspectives of the stranded whaler, James “Jim” Lee, and the Revenue Cutter Service Lieutenant David Jarvis. Occasionally, the perspectives of other characters are also followed, such as Tom Lopp, a Christian missionary living in Alaska.

I read this book around 2006 and felt it was fairly good, at the time. So I figured I’d give it another read. My opinion on it has shifted slightly. On one hand, I feel that this book accomplishes its goal of highlighting the significance of this event in Coast Guard (Revenue Cutter Service) history and the uniqueness of the rescue. However, on the other hand, I’ve become far more critical of how the narrative is written and presented.

Thesis

There’s no defined thesis to this book since it’s a reconstructed narrative of the events of the Overland Relief Expedition.

Author’s Background

According to the biographical blurb in the book, Shawn Shallow is a bank marketing executive in Alabama. He served in the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve during college where he cultivated his interest in maritime history.

Critical Observations

Positives

The Overland Relief Expedition has gone down in the annals of U.S. Coast Guard history as one of the greatest arctic rescues ever accomplished. It’s hard to overstate the courage of David Jarvis, Samuel Call, and Ellsworth Bertholf. These men are legends within the Coast Guard and, with the exception of Call, have had Coast Guard cutters named after them.

Revenue Cutter Service officers of the Overland Relief Expedition. (Left to right) 2nd Lieutenant Ellsworth P. Bertholf, Dr. Samuel J. Call, 1st Lieutenant David H. Jarvis.
USRC Bear officers, including Second Lt. Ellsworth Bertholf (front row far left), First Lt. David Jarvis (front row third from left), Captain Francis Tuttle (center), and ship’s surgeon Dr. Samuel J. Call (back row far right).

There’s a great deal that can be said about the ruggedness of these men, both those who drove the reindeer across Alaska in the middle of winter, and the tenacity of the whalers to survive as long as possible. In reading the narrative, one can get a good sense of the frigid temperatures, whiteout conditions, rugged terrain, unstable ice, and ferocious blizzards that the men (Jarvis and company) had to contend with as they pushed further and further north toward the whalers at Point Barrow. In short, these men had to be very self-reliant and it’s amazing that just a few of them managed to pull this rescue off. In many ways, they were blessed with exceptional luck and good relations with the locals who were willing to help them drive the reindeer over a thousand miles across an unforgiving environment.

Having only been to Alaska myself in the summertime, I can’t even begin to imagine what the winters would be like, particularly at extreme latitudes.

There’s a center section with a decent number of photos to illustrate the book and help the reader form a good mental picture. Although, that mental picture will undoubtedly be one of a snowy, ice-covered landscape, and frostbitten extremities.

Negatives

Coming back to this book after learning more about historiography over the years has changed my outlook on it. As a result, I have the biggest problems with the narrative and dialogue in this book. It’s important to remember that the narrative is dramatized and derived from historical sources. However, therein lies the problem. The dramatization means that it’s basically historical fiction. Truth be told, there’s no shortage of exaggeration in the nautical lore genre, but the narrative of this book clearly has a ton of made-up details. The setting, characters, and broad timeline of events are real, but many of the specifics are largely fabricated to fit the story. Consequently, I’ve never seen this book used as a reference in other works that cover the Overland Relief Expedition.

The coverage given to the different people is also a bit sporadic at times because the story is largely focused on the experiences of David Jarvis. Both Ellsworth Bertholf and Samuel Call disappear from the narrative for about two-thirds of the book, despite Call traveling with Jarvis. Bertholf took a different route, but once he separates from the group, he isn’t mentioned for quite some time and only reappears near the end of the expedition.

Obviously, the dialogue had to be created for the story since it’s unlikely that the personal journals of these people contained a stenographic record of their conversations. For example, in the case of memoirs, authors have to recreate conversations based on their best recollection of the events. As such, Shallow had to derive and create the dialogue from the journals of the main participants and other sources. It’s hard to put a finger on what’s wrong with the dialogue, but much of it just feels out-of-place, contrived, and forced.

The overall writing isn’t the greatest, either. In many ways, it reads like a piece of young adult literature. The best way to describe it is that it’s very safe. The descriptions are decent enough, but the vocabulary and dialogue are fairly tame and seemingly meant for a younger audience. It just doesn’t read like a piece of history meant for the adult popular history market.

Evaluation (Does the content support the thesis?)

My opinion of this book has definitely changed since I last read it. This is largely due to my more discriminating tastes when it comes to historical works. In many ways, I’m somewhat torn between still liking this book and feeling lukewarm about it. I now see this book as a “based on a true story” type of work. Which it is. While not a huge problem, the reader must understand that this is a dramatized narrative of historical events. In that respect, it’s very fictionalized. On the other hand, the biggest benefit of this book is that it keeps alive the memory of these people and their courage. Ultimately, while I don’t feel that this book is a great work of history, it still covers a very unique event in nautical lore. As such, my rating remains the same, but I’d caution any reader in using it as a reference.

Rating: 3 out of 5 (Above average).

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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