Frozen in Time by Mitchell Zuckoff

Juxtaposition

Two topics are off-limits in my conversations this week: weather and airplanes.  The book we’re talking about today discusses both, nearly exclusively.  Oh well.

About 3% of my way into Frozen In Time by Mitchell Zuckoff, I was beginning to question my motivation for reading the book.  Or rather, it was the page between the first plane crash and army talk that made me doubt.  I’m interested in cold places, I enjoy survival narratives, but army and macho-man stories aren’t my thing.

Or, could they be?

I ended up finishing Frozen In Time and, even more surprising, continued to bring it up in at least 35% of conversations in the following weeks.  The book may tell the story of a group of men stranded in Greenland while during World War II, but the war-story genre soon disappears and inspirational human survival takes over.

The book claims to alternate between the author’s journey to Greenland to recover one a lost plane and the story of the stranded soldiers, but doesn’t do so in practice.  Rather than shifts between modern and historical, most of the book chronicles the plane crashes in Greenland during winter 1942.  This isn’t a dry history book. Zuckoff’s story reads like a novel; each character has their own arch and the story is flushed out with great detail.  The inattentive reader — as I was at points — begins to wonder exactly how he knows so much information.

During World War II, Greenland becomes an important points of control for the American army — specifically the Coast Guard — for the control and knowledge of Europe it affords them.  Unfortunately, the land is hostile and flying over the country can be hazardous.  During one such journey, a group of three Americans crash their plane.  It’s November.  Search parties are sent out immediately.

One of those search parties is a group Americans in a B-17 plane.  Unfortunately, they too crash after getting disoriented when flying through so-called milk.  Everything is white; they can’t distinguish between the sky and the ground.  What proceeds next is the story of how they manage on the ice during the winter.  Several more search groups are sent out, others live, others don’t.

At the same time, the author meets Lou Sapienza, a history buff eager to get military funding to finance the return of one of the crashed planes.  He wants to provide closure to the soldiers’ families who never got to know the details of their sons’ deaths.  The plane he aims to recover is referred to as the Duck, an enigmatic name for the non-aviators among us.

The majority of the book told the story of the soldiers stranded on the ice, which wavered between depressing, uplifting and monotonous.  What propels the book forward is the improbability of their situation.  You simply cannot wrap your head around the conditions they experienced.  It makes wearing socks indoors seem delightful.

Unfortunately, the story is more compelling than the writing.  If Into Thin Air was the best book I read this year, it was because it was so well written.  Zuckoff is crafty with how he weaves the tales together and is able to create several very poignant moments, but at other times his sentences evoke images best left untouched, “The images resemble a colonoscopy in an icehole, although here everyone hopes that the camera will spot a foreign object” (275).  This is the most extreme example, but there are several other unique comparisons drawn throughout the text that makes you question the editor’s judgement.

Overall — if you are in the business of reading and discussing airplanes and weather — Frozen In Time is a captivating read, though not a page turner.  Had I not already had an interest in Greenland and survival in the cold, I wouldn’t have finished the book.  Zuckoff manages to widen the audience for this niche topic, but only slightly.

What was the last random book you read?

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