Madhouse at the End of the Earth
by Julian Sancton
Madhouse at the End of the Earth arrived in Yankton a couple of months back, and I have no idea who sent it to me, but my best guess is with Paul – he’s always one to find a good time in a suffer fest adventure. It is a grueling yet inspiring tale that was a good ‘escape’ from here. The story is based in the late 1800s as a young Belgian aristocrat puts together an expedition to Antarctica, with the goal of reaching the magnetic South pole.
At the time, King Leopold of Belgium had taken control of the Congo, but what I recently learned from other readings is it wasn’t a Belgian territory. The King “owned” it. He claimed the Congo as his personal territory and enslaved villagers to extract rubber from the vines of rubber trees for his budding empire. Anyone who dissented was punished or murdered. This book passes over those details and instead discusses how exploring Antarctica was the feat the captain wanted to tackle while the rest of the country was extremely curious about Africa. It was eerie to learn those facts after reading this. Another life lesson is that there’s always more beneath the surface – with icebergs and history.
Through a series of diaries that almost everyone on the ship kept, the author was able to piece together, with quite a bit of clarity, not only the journey but the mayhem that began when their ship became trapped in the permanent darkness and deep freeze of an Antarctic winter. It should be mentioned that I’m not spoiling the details by sharing this fact – the cover includes a picture of their boat stuck in the ice.
To sail from Belgium to Antarctica took longer than anticipated, and after arriving at the continent, the ship’s scientists and crew spent more time than planned exploring the northern reaches of Antarctica. On board was a zoologist, meteorologist, and geologist who cataloged rocks, moss, lichen, fish, birds, mammals, and insects. This left the captain of the ship in a position of fearing the ridicule which would ensue when his ship returned home, and they had not reached the furthest known southern point any human had sailed to.
Although winter was setting in, de Gerlache pushed the journey further south, against his intuition and the best interest of all on board. Eventually, their ship becomes frozen in place, and the madhouse is the ensuing fear and uncertainty. When will the ice thaw enough for them to leave? Will the ever-shifting ice crush the ship at any given moment, sinking the ship along with the crew? Combine these factors with subzero temperatures, seventy days of no sunlight, and extreme isolation, and you create, literally, a madhouse at the end of the earth.
The nuanced details of daily life and what the men suffered through make a wild story. It’s fuel for the fire when it comes to any struggle, another case of “it could always be worse.” While the majority of the story makes the trip seem horrific, some of the men are absolutely thrilled by the sheer audacity of their current predicament and find joy in it. Along with this, over a century later, the scientist’s findings still form the foundation of our understanding of Antarctica.
When the sun was shining as little as it did, and you combine that with bleak surroundings and fear for one’s life, you’re forced to see the beauty where you can. One of the crew members had a penchant for descriptive writing, so of course, I will share my favorite passage from this novel.
“The plain, as if powdered with diamonds, sparkles in the clear sun. Icebergs and hummocks flaunt their silver crests and project behind the diaphanous shadows, of a blue so pure they appear to have been stripped from the sky. Channels trace winding paths of lapis-lazuli, and, on their shores, young ice takes on an aquamarine tint. Towards the evening, imperceptibly, the shadows change, turn a tender pink, a pale mauve, and behind each iceberg, it seems that a passing fairy has hung her veil of gauze. Slowly, the horizon is colored in pink, then in yellow-orange, and, when the sun has disappeared, a crepuscular glimmer persists, fading deliciously into the dark blue sky in which countless stars scintillate.”
There are several photographs in the middle of this book, but of course, they’re only black and white. Once I read this passage, I felt as if it added color and vibrancy to my visualization of their surroundings. I also appreciate the overt use of commas, which seemed to be par, for the course, amongst all the men, on board. Lastly, the word ‘crepuscular’ had come into my life no less than twenty-four hours earlier when reading an entirely different book, which was ironically mocking the word.
All in all, another reason to appreciate the 100-degree days and humidity out here in South Eastern South Dakota. While this place may be a madhouse in its own right, I can at least go to bed every night knowing it won’t sink. That’s the magic of books like this. The reading isn’t only an escape from my current predicament. It reframes how I assess the challenges I face daily.
Prison itself is a challenge, but there are other challenges that still lie ahead. Much as the crew of the ship has done, I have to find joy and gratitude in the present while working hard to prepare for the future. The battle is never done, but it’s also never as unmanageable as we can make it out to be. Keep working, keep writing, and keep earning that better outcome.