Monday, July 17, 2006

The Cruelest Miles by Gay & Laney Salisbury

The Cruelest Miles tells the story of the famous Nome serum run, in which dog sled teams raced desperately needed diphtheria antitoxin from southeastern Seward to ice-bound Nome, Alaska to halt the growing diphtheria epidemic.

This book was recommended to me by a friend who read it while traveling in Alaska, last year. She thought it was a good choice for learning about the area and its history. Since I was in the midst of reading Peter Jenkins' Looking for Alaska, I didn't manage to begin reading the book until we were in Kenai --our fourth night in Alaska-- and continued to read it in Anchorage and on our return trip. I was a bit baffled as to why the authors spent such a great portion of their time describing the history of both dog sled teams and aviation in Alaska, at first; but, as it turned out, the timing was perfect. When we visited the aviation museum in Anchorage, I was already familiar with the stories of some of Alaska's early aviators because of The Cruelest Miles and I'm certain I got a great deal more out of our visit to that small museum because of the book.

As to the story of the diphtheria run, itself, the details were fascinating but minimal and not laid out in the kind of order I would have preferred. In fact, that portion was really quite jumpy and slap-dash, in my humble opinion. Apparently, there's not much more to the story than the descriptions of the weather, the experiences of individual dog-team handlers during their portions of the race, and a bit of controversy over which dog and driver deserved the most recognition; so, the time spent on background was necessary, if only to make the book long enough for publication. I found it a bit tedious, at times, because I was expecting more emphasis on the actual run. However, the book was intensely researched and well-presented if a bit dry.

The winter weather was unusually bitter, even for the area, during the time that the serum was being rushed to Nome in 1925. For that reason, it was sometimes exciting to read about how each musher decided which path he should choose for the sake of balancing his safety and that of the serum versus the time that would be added by making the safest decision or the potential for disaster if he chose a more dangerous route to save time.

Leonhard Seppala had the largest role, although I won't go into detail about where he was chosen to do his portion and what decision he made in order to avoid spoiling it for those who decide the book is worth reading. I will say I expected Seppala to be the man whose team was led by Balto, the team leader whose statue still sits in Central Park, in spite of having read something about there being a bit of controversy over which dog was lauded. Seppala's lead dog was not Balto and, in fact, Seppala was angered by the attention paid to a dog he considered less worthy than his own lead dog, Togo. There's plenty of detail to that aspect of the story. The descriptions of the dogs, how they were bred, the necessary qualities for lead dogs, and their ability to make decisions took up a sizeable portion of the text and made for some enjoyable reading.

I'd give this one a slightly above-average rating - enjoyable and informative, sometimes gripping, but a bit sleep-inducing in its detail, at times. Looking for Alaska is a better choice for learning about Alaska, its natives, tradition, and life in Seward, but The Cruelest Miles is worth the time.

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