Had I not been sent a review copy of Show me a hero: The sin of Richard Byrd Junior by Jeremy Scott a few years back, I suspect I would never have read it – and what a treat I would have missed out on.
From the cover and beautifully chosen typography – wonderfully invoking the 1920s – through to the fast-moving drama of the race to be the first to fly to the North Pole, and the question of whether the first to claim this achievement was a liar, this book is a real treat.
Few of the characters in this tale of 1920s technology pushed to, and frequently beyond, its limits are pleasant. Deeply flawed, frequently unpleasant and psychologically damaged characters abound, with even Roald Amundsen coming out as a man of many mistakes – a man I usually have a soft spot for, for his success in getting first to the South Pole is usually put in the shade by Scott’s poorer planning, worse choices of equipment and second placed journey by the fact that Scott ended up driving himself and his colleagues to their death, as if dying in failure is a more admirable achievement than being first and living.
Death and failure abound too in the race to fly to the North Pole first, with a photographic gallery of the main characters at the end of the book adorned with their fates – “lied”, “died”, “exiled”, “disowned” and “betrayed”. A sample of the index entries for one of them includes “ambition”, “arrogance”, “disgraced”, “erratic nature”, “heroic status” and “stranded”.
Following the characters along the way to their varying demises, the plot has many dramatic twists which a fictional author would be wary of trying to get away with – the rival expeditions that chose the same starting point and turn up at nearly the same time, the long separated characters who meet again by chance with an airship rendezvous with an ice-breaker in the Arctic and much more.
It is a well told tale, which despite the novel like story telling does a good job of distinguishing between that which comes from the historical record and that which is the product of the author’s speculative extractions from it.
On the key question about whether Richard Byrd Jr, all American hero and claimed first to fly to the North Pole, lied over his achievement, the book lays out the evidence both ways even if – as the book’s subtitle indicates – the views of Jeremy Scott are quite clear.