Since the completion of its first voyage in 1896 and the publication of Fridtjof Nansen’s
Fram [Farthest North] the following year, the Norwegian polar ship Fram—which means forward or ahead—has played a prominent role in numerous expedition narratives
and polar explorer biographies and autobiographies. While these narratives tend to
focus on one of Fram’s three voyages, Ice Ship by Charles W. Johnson follows this ship from its conception and construction by Fridtjof
Nansen and Colin Archer, through its three pioneering voyages, to its eventual disrepair,
and finally renovation and relocation to the Fram museum on Bygdøy, where it is currently one of Oslo’s most popular tourist attractions.
Johnson draws on polar histories, biographies, diaries, and other first-hand expedition
accounts, as well as reflective writing and historical fiction and weaves the backgrounds,
motivations, and personalities of both the expedition leaders—Fridtjof Nansen, Otto
Sverdrup, and Roald Amundsen—and participants into the narrative. Written with a popular
audience in mind, Ice Ship provides a detailed and captivating introduction to Fram’s role in shaping Norway’s identity as a polar nation during the late 19th and early
20th centuries, a period known as the golden age of polar exploration.
About a third of Ice Ship is devoted to each of Fram’s epic voyages, and Johnson highlights the multiple purposes and ground-breaking
qualities of each of them. The sometimes overlooked second expedition, during which
Otto Sverdrup and his crew carried out scientific work and mapped large portions of
the eastern Canadian Arctic from 1898-1902, is given equal coverage with the better
known first (1893-96) and third voyages (1910-12) during which the North and South
Poles were the intended geographical goals. Ice Ship follows the various sub-groups of these expeditions, describing both the parties
who remained on the Fram in the Arctic and Southern Oceans and those who traveled on foot, not privileging
a particular group or voyage. Johnson analyzes ways in which other accounts have overlooked
or whitewashed various events and personalities connected to the Fram, and his descriptions of the expedition leaders’ strengths and weaknesses—including
Nansen’s mood swings and Amundsen’s secretiveness—can be used as a springboard to
discuss leadership styles. The post-expedition lives of a number of Fram’s crewmembers are well integrated into the text and highlight the challenges polar
explorers faced upon re-entry into society.
Johnson provides engaging connections between the members and goals of Fram’s three expeditions, and this results in smooth transitions between the book’s sections.
Johnson also places Fram’s journeys and expedition members in the contexts of assorted Swedish, American,
and British polar journeys, including the Greely and Franklin expeditions. The descriptions
of the encounters of the Fram’s crews with iconic figures such as balloonist Salomon Andrée, Robert Peary, and
the crew of Scott’s Terra Nova also serve as useful points of reference for the reader. The contributions of various
Inuit communities to the expeditions are acknowledged as well. Four brief vignettes
are interspersed throughout the text, three of which provide readers with basic information
about polar ice, days, seasons, and regions. The fourth is more personal in nature
and, with the reflective preface and postscript, functions to highlight Johnson’s
personal connections to and passion for the history of exploration as well as contemporary
issues in the Polar Regions.
Though richly illustrated and with a useful index and list of references to sources
in English and Norwegian, scholarly audiences may wish for more extensive notes and
more direct references to the source material. General audiences and students alike,
however, will appreciate Johnson’s engaging and at times poetic and suspenseful descriptions
of the Fram’s voyages and colourful cast of characters. With Ice Ship, Johnson has written, in essence, a biography of the Fram, and in doing so has made a highly accessible and welcome contribution to the ever-growing
field of polar literature.