Actor/director/teacher. Split my time between Beijing and Seattle now. Listen to Audible on the subway and while driving or riding my bike.
This is unquestionably the most amazing tale of men against the elements that I have ever read or heard, and it is told remarkably well by Lansing who draws artfully from the actual diary entries of the participants without ever reducing the narrative to a dry progression of quotes. His ability to bring the harrowing conditions and landscape, the fascinating array of characters, and the grueling sequence of challenges and hairsbreadth escapes into sharp and riveting focus is quite extraordinary. Simon Prebble is a perfect match for the fine writing. He audibly sorts out the personalities involved and presents the whole with an understated but charged clarity which keeps the narrative moving even through what could seem like a never ending and tedious progression of disasters in the voice of a lesser reader.
Of course the real stars here are Shackleton and the men under his command who prove themselves capable of feats of courage, endurance and simple, stubborn determination which almost surpass belief. Ordinary and flawed in so many ways, they come together to become much more than the sum of their individual qualities.
In the end, the most fascinating part of this story is the long and torturous series of life and death choices involved. Time after time Shackleton's decisions are crucial to the party's survival, whether the question is when to abandon the pack ice for the boats, when to kill the dogs, when to allow the party to split, or how to get to the bottom of a nearly vertical snowbound precipice in order to avoid freezing at high altitude (think Butch Cassidy and Sundance). Nature is an implacable adversary for these men, marshaling countless terrifying storms, thirst, cold, hunger, completely unpredictable ice and long weeks of winter darkness against them and time after time crushing hope just as it seems most justified. Perhaps the most extraordinary decision of all, under the circumstances, was the choice each of them made to simply keep on keeping on when it seemed to make no sense
Finally, while this tale is exhausting in some ways, it is also deeply inspiring and satisfying. And Lansing and Prebble have given us the wonderful opportunity to "experience" it all while sitting in comfort and safety. Almost doesn't seem fair, but I strongly urge you to take advantage of the offer.
I had never heard of Kokoda before listening to this book. That is a shame. I am not likely to forget the name now. This is one of the more amazing chapters in the annals of war.
It is very much a story of the indomitable spirit of common soldiers called upon to perform impossible tasks with inferior equipment, little or no training, some of the worst terrain in the entire world and stupid, pig-headed leadership at the highest level. FitzSimons does a fine job of keeping us engaged with the narrative even as the action of the men on the ground is reduced to an interminable, repetitious slog between indefensible positions which are held in the face of overwhelming odds and casualties only to be given up as the serial holding actions continue. He does this by giving us detailed and moving accounts of individuals and etching in our minds indelible images of moments of extraordinary heroism and gallantry. Nor does he fail to include Japanese participants among these glimpses of war's exquisite anguish. In addition we are regularly taken to the rear to witness the unpardonable, ego-driven pig-headedness of MacArthur and the Australian high command which failed the troops in almost every way.
This is an account made all the more gripping because it played such a pivotal role in turning the tide of the Japanese expansion in the South, holding the door shut while the U.S. put Marines in place on Guadalcanal where they would dig in to face their own ghastly ordeal. Without Kokoda, there would have never been a victory at Guadal and the war would doubtless have lasted significantly longer. The poorly trained, unprepared, mostly unsupported men of the Australian home defense forces at Kokoda deserve to be remembered with reverence, and this book tells their story brilliantly. I highly recommend it.
Toll's research is impressive and he writes superbly. What's more, Grover Gardner delivers the book with his usual precise craft, and I could happily have listened for far more than the 22 hours it took to take us from the approaches to Pearl Harbor to the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Midway. In fact, I wanted to since I was somewhat disappointed to find that, while the title promises "1941-1942," the account actually only covers the first six months of the Pacific naval war. Thus it wraps up months before the vital actions surrounding the holding of Guadalcanal. I would gladly have exchanged the prolonged biographical material on political and military leaders on both sides of the conflict, for more detailed accounts of the naval struggles at the Santa Cruz Islands and Iron Bottom Sound.
Still, it is probably churlish to complain that a terrific writer has not aligned his focus with your particular predilections. This is a very well written piece of history, and anyone interested in the rest of 1942 will find an extremely fine account in "Neptune's Inferno" by James D. Hornfischer.