Shy woman stars in poignant adventure

Posted: Thursday, March 25, 2004

Ada Blackjack was not a typical celebrity. A petite Inuit with a third-grade education, she hid from the paparazzi of the 1920s who put her name on the front pages of newspapers around the world. The adventure that caused her notoriety was so traumatic she wanted only to forget it.

"It always makes me have a choke in my throat and tears come to my eyes," she told a friend.

Ada was the sole survivor of a two-year expedition to desolate Wrangel Island north of Siberia. The venture was a disaster of naivet, and her survival an accident of fate.

"In the annals of Arctic exploration, many men have been hailed as heroes, but a hero like Ada was unheard of at the time," author Jennifer Niven writes in her preface. "She was a young and unskilled woman who headed into the Arctic in search of money and a husband. What she found instead was a nightmare rivaling even the most horrific folktales she had grown up hearing from the storytellers in her village."

Niven delves into the episode's details and exhumes a wrenching human drama of loss and survival.

Ada and the four young men who set sail for the island in 1921 were ill-prepared. Sent by the famous (and notorious) explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson, they were to claim the island for Canada and set up an advance camp for a commercial colony to follow. Buoyed by youthful

energy and Stefansson's glib assurances, the men tackled the project with more enthusiasm than savvy. They were likeable, intelligent, hard-working, good-hearted and fatally optimistic.

When their plan to hire Native hunters from Alaska fell through, they determined to catch their own provisions. It was just one of many setbacks that, in hindsight, should have deterred them.

The only Native who showed up when the boat was ready to sail was Ada. Hired as a seamstress for the essential task of maintaining their winter wardrobe, she was an unlikely adventurer. A product of colonial efforts to assimilate Natives, she knew nothing about living off the land. Her background was questionable. Rumors of prostitution and alcoholism never were proven, but there is no doubt that poverty and poor taste in men bedeviled her life. Abandoned by her husband and with a sickly child to support, she was desperate for the pay the expedition offered.

"Fifty dollars a month. In two years, if she was careful, she could save enough to take [her son] Bennett out of the orphanage and bring him to live with her. She might even save enough to take him to Seattle, where he could go to a hospital and get the best medical care. They would cure him of his tuberculosis, and then he would be a normal, healthy child," Niven writes.

Unlike the confident young men, Ada was terrified and regretted her decision as soon as they reached the icy isle. She suffered a nervous breakdown and made her companions suffer, too. She wept, often refused to work, ran away into the wilderness and begged each man to marry her.

But as time dragged on, the expected relief ship failed to arrive and the expedition unraveled, Ada gathered her wits and forced herself to cope. The worse conditions became, the more she rose to the challenge. When others stopped keeping journals, she began writing and typing her own narrative. As hope of deliverance faded, she focused on her son and on the Bible her last comrade gave her.

The book brings the four men and others involved into focus before Ada. But when this taciturn woman begins to speak, her words are riveting.

Facing likely death, she wrote: "This very important noted in case I happen to died or some body fine out I was dead I want Mrs. Rita McCafferty take care of my son Bennett. I don't want his father Black Jack to take him on a count of stepmother not for my boy."

Many authors would have stopped the book when Ada was delivered from her doom. But Niven continues the tale into the complexities Ada encountered afterward.

Eager to put the ordeal behind her and get on with life, Ada found herself pursued by the press, Stefansson and others seeking to exploit her ordeal. In contrast, her meetings with the parents of the dead were touching and fulfilling.

Niven paints Stefansson as a careless humbug who used his charisma to seduce others into unnecessary risks and showed little remorse about sacrificing them to feed his fame. Even Ada's rescuer tried to profit by betraying her.

Ada was no saint, and she was sadly used. Yet her inner strength shines through the narrative. Friends described her as poised, intelligent, dignified and honest. She kept her word, put her children first and never tried to benefit from tragedy.

Niven's previous book, "The Ice Master," recounted the 1913 disaster of the lost ship "Karluk." That incident was a prelude to the 1921 expedition and, although "Ada Blackjack" stands on its own as a story, reading "The Ice Master" first is useful background.

Niven had fewer resources for the second book. Lacking detailed journals such as survive from the "Karluk" incident, she turned to other sources, most notably the wayfarers' families. The narrative has a mood of hindsight, like an album of sepia-tinted photos.

The author tells her tale with skill. She writes with a spare grace and never gets in the way of her material. Ultimately, she succeeds in combining gripping adventure with a subtle tale about human nature.

Ada, if she were still alive, would probably be embarrassed by such a book. Yet it stands as a fitting epitaph for her, her four lost companions and their profound decency.

Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Peninsula Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.

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