Book Review - Ada Blackjack - A True Story of Survival in the Arctic

By Suzanne Gougherty | 

In the spring of 2019, while camping in the Virginia Beach area, we made one of our usual stops - a used book store.  There I came across an interesting book cover with just enough content to pique my interest; Ada Blackjack - A True Story of Survival in the Arctic, by Jennifer Niven, published in 2003.   
Ada is the true hero and sole survivor of a doomed and underprepared, minimally equipped, underfunded polar exploration. She is a shy 23-year-old Inuit woman, not more than five feet tall, who sets out in 1921 with a team of four men from very different backgrounds, who have decided to cross the frozen ocean in an attempt to colonize a barren island just north of Siberia for the British government, called Wrangle Island.  

Her assignment was to cook, clean, and make clothes for the men. She was hesitant to go, but her ailing son and the money promised her would greatly help to get better care for him.  

From the beginning, this unlikely group has no chance of survival, making poor decisions even before leaving Nome, Alaska. This narrative continues throughout the expedition.

Niven shares an inside look at the treatment that Ada endures by the men, most of which were verbal attacks with racial undertones. But she overcomes, being the lone survivor, learning to hunt, trap, sustain and survive a brutally harsh frozen environment.  

Her personal story unfolds of how she endured her time alone and the self-taught skills she acquired in the wilds, which kept her alive in an unforgiving landscape. Once she is rescued and returns to civilization, she is then faced with another unimaginable crisis; dealing with social and media backlash, and the cultural clash of living in the states.  

Niven's book is well-documented. She conducted many interviews, searched archives in Canada, Alaska, North Carolina, and other states, including Ada's dairy, which offers the dramatic detail of her life alone in a barren wilderness.    

Niven also interviewed Ada Blackjack's son, Billy Blackjack Johnson, who shared much of his mother's personal story. Billy died in 2003 and did not live to see the publication of the book.  

There have been few documentaries released about Ada’s life. She never considered herself a heroine, and from my perspective, she was trying to find peace and solitude for the remainder of her life.  Ada died in 1983 in Alaska at the age of 85.

Ada Blackjack - A True Story of Survival in the Arctic is one of my favorite biographical books ever.

Copyright by Suzanne Gougherty © 2020. All right reserved.


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