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A gripping rescue story, bogged in details

Paul Conrad
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Some stories get so buried in the sands of history that they’re only discovered by chance. Sometimes great adventures, although known, get so overshadowed by the greater events of the time that they are soon forgotten. “In A Far Country,” by John Taliafero, retells the efforts of the Overland Relief Expedition in the winter of 1897-98 and how missionary Tom Lopp and seven Eskimos drove a herd of 400 reindeer more than 700 miles through barren Alaskan wasteland and over Bering Sea ice. They were aiming to keep 200 sailors on eight whaling ships from starving to death after they became trapped in the encroaching ice of the northern polar winter. In a mix of both biographical and historical writing taken from personal journals and public records, Taliaferro, an author and former Newsweek senior editor, retells the story of this dramatic expedition and the lives of Christian missionary Lopp and his wife, Ellen. Taliaferro digs deep into the past of his subjects to help bring the characters to rugged life.

The book’s prologue tells how the relief effort was overshadowed by the Spanish-American War and the Alaskan gold rush. It explains the purpose of the missionaries on the Alaskan frontier, describing Lopp’s desire to civilize the Eskimos and help them prepare for the onrushing torrent of white settlers. The story continues with how Lopp met his wife Ellen, how she came to the frontier, and how the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service (a forerunner to today’s Coast Guard) patrolled the Bering Sea for foreign poachers. It also explains the need for the Alaskan tribes to learn how to herd reindeer in order to survive. All this in deep detail.Although well-written, the book moves slowly. It seemed to take forever to reach the climactic rescue. Too many times, I found myself skipping pages, and several times I only read the opening paragraphs of a chapter – this without feeling I missed anything.As soon as I reached the part about the relief effort, however, I was engaged.

Taliaferro’s commitment to the truth is evident in the extensive bibliographic notes in the back of the book. At times the details conveyed a sense of being there, at other times they were too much. Reading about the humble home of John and Ellen enabled this reader to visualize the rigors of life on the Alaskan frontier. But the economic and sociological history of reindeer and caribou became boring.My recommendation is to skip over the prologue and first few chapters, then dive straight into the relief effort. Then skip the epilogue.”In a Far Country” is a book more suited to a history class than a quiet night at home.

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