Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Birthday Boys by Beryl Bainbridge: The Lost Men of the Scott Expedition

I was about twelve when I picked up The Great White South from Dad's bookshelf and started reading. It was written by the Scott Antarctic expedition photographer Herbert Ponting.

In 1910, Captain Robert Falcon Scott sailed from Cardiff. His scientific expedition hoped to be the first to reach the South Pole. Everything went wrong, "the first great catastrophe on the record of Antarctic exploration," wrote the editor of Everybody's Magazine, which shared Ponting's photos and Scott's diary excerpts six months after Scott and his men were found dead.

During my junior high years, Capt. Robert Falcon Scott was my ideal tragic hero. I read The Great White South several times until the aged cover and pages began to separate. I was the only one of my friends who had even heard of the failed Scott expedition to the South Pole, just fifty years past.

I last read about Scott in The Worst Journey in the World by expedition member Aspeley Cherry-Garrard and  I May Be Some Time by Frances Spurfford, but that was about 10 years ago.

When I saw The Birthday Boys cover with its ship and masts on NetGalley, I clicked on it to see what it was (as I love sea stories) and as soon as I saw it was about Scott I put in my request to read.

Captain Robert Falcon Scott
The story is told through first person narratives of the five men who died trying to reach the Pole: Petty Officer Taft Evans, Dr. Edward Wilson, Capt. Robert F. Scott, Lt. Henry 'Birdie' Bowers, and Capt. Lawrence Oates. Bainbridge has created unique personalities for each narrator, vivid and full. From fundraising to setting sail to arrival at Antarctica to the last words spoken by Oates, the various impressions each had and the experiences of the men are revealed.
The men of the Scott Expedition
The challenges the men faced were overwhelming. A mistake, an accident, is fatal in the Antarctic. Scott's choice of machines and horses was a failure. The scientific research was curtailed by weather and the specimens lost. The men kept a stiff upper lip in their devotion to the old English standard of duty.

But the men also saw the coming end of the values of the old world. Dr. Wilson muses,"All the things we were taught to believe in, love of country, of Empire, of devotion to duty, are being held up to ridicule." Birdie responds that men are caught between the spiritual and material world, and "if we can't become saints then we must find a sort of balance which will allow us to be at peace with ourselves. All I know is, nothing matters a damn except that we should help one another."

The Antarctic demands the men help one another to survive. Although 'providence' seems to have saved the day several times, it is the men's devotion to the common good, "the missing link between God and man"--brotherly love--that keeps them going.

Each narrator's birthday is celebrated during their story. Oates story comes last, dated March 1912. Frostbite has turned to gangrene, and he knows his days are numbered, but he's kept it to himself. Oates has no love for Scott and credits his mistakes for causing misery. Life has become hellish and he recalls better times on the Terra Nova, when he shared his Boer War experience and injury, his homecoming, and his adventures across the world. He was certain Scott won't include him on the last leg of the journey to the Pole, and is surprised to be chosen.

Amundson, a Norwegian, had beaten them, his flag already planted when Scott and his men arrive. Then Taff showed his gangrenous hand. Wilson was snow-blind. Evans was 'soft in the brain' and under morphia. Birdie still worked hard to keep things going. But now, Oates has come to appreciate Scott and his strength of empathy.

On his birthday, Oates foot was far gone. He'd had a fretful night's sleep on morphia. That morning he tried to slip out of the tent, but was caught by Birdie. Oates told him, "I'm just going outside, and may be some time." And he walked into the blizzard.

I still get chocked up and teary.

Eight months after Scott, Wilson, and Bowers died in a cabin after burying Evans, and after Oates wandered into the cold and snow, their men found them. And in February 1913 the Terra Nova returned to New Zealand bearing the news of the brave comrade's deaths. Scott's diary and photos were turned over to his widow. Soon after, Everybody's Magazine received the documents, and supervised by Mr. Leonard Huxley, was preparing the story that was published in July 1913.

The Birthday Boys is a short novel, but if you don't know about the Scott expedition everything you need to know is contained in the story. It is a compelling and emotional journey. I highly recommend it.

I received a free e-book from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

The Birthday Boys
Beryl Bainbridge
Open Road Media
October 2, 2016
e-book ISBN 9781504039420

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