Reviewed by Kristina Sjögren in SBR 2014:1
Review Section: Non-Fiction
1897: Engineer Salomon August Andrée and his two young colleagues Nils Strindberg and Knut Fraenkel take off towards the North Pole in a hydrogen balloon. They disappear. In 1930, their remains are found on the uninhabited, ice-bound island of Kvitøya or White Island. Andrée’s diary reveals that they died within two weeks of each other. Many books have been written about the expedition but so far no one has been able to prove the causes of death.
1997: Bea Uusma, a young Swedish doctor, becomes obsessed with the Andrée expedition. She starts spending most of her free time researching its fate and decides to try solving the riddle. The result is her book Expeditionen: En kärlekshistoria, which won the prestigious non-fiction August Prize in 2013.
Uusma has done extensive research and dug deep into all the background documentation, including information about clothing and bodily remains. She travelled to the North Pole seven times. She has researched the families of Andrée, Strindberg and Fraenkel, taking a special interest in Strindberg’s fiancée Anna Charlier. Uusma so desperately wants to know how they died that she suspects this wish formed part of her decision to study medicine.
After several years of research, things start happening. In the Andrée Museum, Uusma finds a pair of Strindberg’s longjohns that no one has examined before, then goes on to locate three of André’s nails inside a glove and the remains of the expedition’s medicine supply. These finds make it possible for Uusma to eliminate several earlier theories and speculations about the deaths of the three men. She manages to fund her own expedition to the Arctic to try to go ashore on the White Island again and finally makes it after three unsuccessful attempts. It is an unusually warm summer, and the hostile pack ice around White Island disappears for a few days.
Expeditionen… is an extraordinary crossover between history, autobiography and fiction. It is a non-fiction book about a spectacularly unsuccessful Polar expedition, with detailed, professional research into the events, research that overthrows older theories and gives new answers to what happened. It is also an autobiographical narrative about Uusma and her passionate dedication to the task of solving the mystery. Reading her description of herself as a comfort-loving person who hates the cold, one cannot but empathise. A married woman and a mother, she finds it hard to spend time away from her family in museums and on her travels. At the same time the design of the narrative reads like crime fiction and is equally exciting.
Bea Uusma has written a non-fiction text, incorporated some of her own life into it, and given it the form of a thriller. The layout of the text mirrors this, with different fonts for the extracts from the diaries and letters of the expedition members, the parts about how Uusma conducted her research and the results of it. The book contains drawings and tables, also in a special format.
I must admit that, although I found the book slightly nerdy in all its detail, all its passion, I could not put it down. It is a page turner!