Staff Book Review: Empire of Ice and Stone

JCPL Library Clerk Elizabeth Stillwell shared her thoughts on the book Empire of Ice and Stone: The Disastrous and Heroic Voyage of the Karluk by Buddy Levy in Johnson City Press this weekend. If you didn’t see it in the paper, you can read it below!


It’s hard enough to survive an Arctic shipwreck when the crew works together for survival. It’s even harder when one of the expedition leaders decides to split off and go caribou hunting right as the ship, previously trapped in ice, goes under.

The true story of the Karluk Expedition is brilliantly retold in Buddy Levy’s new book, Empire of Ice and Stone: The Disastrous and Heroic Voyage of the Karluk. Originally commissioned to be the flagship of the Canadian Arctic Expedition of 1913, the Karluk’s disastrous voyage is now seen as the last of the Heroic Age of Discovery.

The stranded crew encountered everything an expedition trapped in Arctic ice for 13 months possibly could. The people aboard the Karluk combated exposure to the Arctic environment, lack of food and winter clothing, and a leader who went rogue. Ultimately, 11 of the original 25 expedition members lost their lives before the group was rescued from Herschel Island in September 1914.

Levy’s retelling juxtaposes the two leaders who came to define the disaster–Captain Bob Bartlett and expedition leader Vilhjalmur Stefansson–and their different reactions to the unfolding events.

Captain Bartlett got the crew off the floating ice pack and onto Herschel Island to await recovery, and he made a 1,000-mile heroic journey to mainland Alaska to send aid. Stefansson, on the other hand, returned to mainland Alaska to focus his attention on the scientific endeavors of the expedition. He did not attempt a rescue or even send help.

Levy’s narrative deliberately focuses on these two men and their differing leadership styles. It was sometimes distracting to have interjections about these leadership problems in the middle of the story. However, it’s clear that one of Levy’s intentions was to tell the story from this perspective.

The real strength of Levy’s account is his narrative prose. I was transported to Herschel Island and could vividly see the bright sun and endless snowy expanse. The characters are brilliantly represented and I found each one compelling. I was devastated when the Russian ship was forced to abort its rescue mission after the outbreak of World War I. Even knowing the history of the disaster, I was hoping more of the expedition members would survive. And the sight of the final rescue ship off the coast of the island filled me with relief.

Pitted against environmental, managerial, and political adversaries, the Karluk Expedition is a tale of courage and survival in the face of disastrous circumstances. Buddy Levy’s Empire of Ice and Stone is both a compelling and devastating read for anyone interested in Arctic exploration or human survival stories.


Your Library’s staff members love giving book recommendations! If you need something new to read, we can help find books and authors that are perfect for you. Call (423) 434-4450, visit our website, or drop by 100 West Millard Street to talk with a librarian. We also regularly highlight and recommend books on Facebook and Instagram, so follow us!

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