Epic voyages make for great nonfiction fodder, and I’m a sucker for a story about enterprising adventurers setting sail on the ocean blue, or people finding themselves transported from one place to another as part of the larger current of history.
Whether retelling of icy, doomed trips to the poles, treks across countries or endless deserts, and famously fateful maiden voyages, these books will transport readers along with their protagonists away from the everyday comfort of everyday life into an uncharted and uncertain future at the edge of human experience.
Make sure to pack your knapsack and kiss your loved ones goodbye for a few hours as you immerse yourself in their world.
Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage: The Titanic’s First Class Passengers And Their World by Hugh Brewster
Published: January 2012
There are plenty of books out there on the disaster of the Titanic (not to mention one of the most epic movies of all time), but Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage takes a very specific perspective on the disaster that is unlike other books on the topic. It focuses on the lives of the entrepreneurs, aristocrats and other notables that made up the first class passenger list of the famous steamer. They included millionaires John Jacob Astor and Benjamin Guggenheim, as well as artists, writers, actresses and politicians. Brewster tells their stories of friendships, romantic liaisons and fortunes through to their destiny during and after the ship’s last moments. You’ll find yourself rooting for these new accessible characters faced with their impending doom, hoping that maybe this time the ship won’t actually sink.
In The Kingdom Of Ice: The Grand And Terrible Polar Voyage Of The USS Jeannette by Hampton Sides
We read In The Kingdom Of Ice for my LA based book club earlier this year and everyone loved it. It recounts the story of the crew of the USS Jeannette and their quest to be the first expedition to reach the North Pole by sailing northward from San Francisco into arctic waters. What starts as a voyage full of possibility and optimism turns into a nightmare of epic proportions when the ship is surrounded and eventually overcome by the advancing polar cap ice with the arrival of winter. Away from their families and civilization, faced with food shortages and enormous distances to cross on ice and across open water in order to reach dry land, the men of the USS Jeannette were forced to dredge up every last ounce of their resolution to try to get home alive. Their incredible adventure kept me hanging on every single word.
The Warmth Of Other Suns: The Epic Story Of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson
Rather than being the story of a single expedition, The Warmth Of Other Suns retells the story of the migration of millions of African-Americans from 1915 to 1970, from the Jim Crow addled South to the comparatively promising urban centers of the North and West of the United States. This enormous population shift is humanized by Wilkerson who explores it through three main protagonists and their extremely personal stories. Ida Mae Gladney, George Starling and Robert Foster each left a southern city to escape horrifying discrimination and seek opportunity in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles respectively. Their journeys are fraught with trials and justified bitterness, but with elements of hope and redemption as well. This is the retelling of a crucial chapter of American history with resounding importance in the present day.
Over The Edge Of The World: Magellan’s Terrifying Circumnavigation Of The Globe by Laurence Bergreen
I read this book partly lying on the shore of the Pacific last summer, and the scenery really lent itself to the occasion. This tale of the first known circumnavigation of the globe by Magellan will leave you saying “Columbus who?” Utilizing the writings of the voyage’s chronicler Antonio Pigafetta, Bergreen brings Magellan’s trip to life, with all its mistaken routes, new discoveries, rampant disease and malnutrition, cultural clashes, unfortunate violent treatment of natives, and days spent lost at sea. Not exactly a swashbuckling tale of adventure, but more a diverting narrative of the many and varied dramas that are bound to happen when you send 270 men of relative civility on a three-year trip around the world in the 1500s.
Skeletons On The Zahara: A True Story Of Survival by Dean King
This book is still on my TBR list. I’ve picked it as a future read because the story sounds frankly unbelievable, and it is set in a desert rather than at sea. The story starts with the shipwreck of the cargo ship Commerce off the coast of Africa in 1815, after which twelve American sailors are captured by nomads, enslaved and forced into a two-month trek across the Sahara. Through the stifling heat, battling dehydration and subject to unspeakable cruelty, these 12 men fight for their lives while attempting to understand the unfamiliar culture of the nomadic tribes on which they now depend for their life. Aside from the survival narrative itself, I’m interested in reading the contextual elements that King adds to the story, including informative tangents on the origins of the camel, the stages of dehydration and the market that existed in Africa for English and American slaves.
Endurance: Shackelton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing
I actually read Shackleton’s own account of his incredible Antarctic voyage – South: The Endurance Expedition. His first hand account benefits from the fact that it comes from the man himself, but unfortunately in some parts it’s just a repetitive list of how much seal blubber and biscuits the expedition has left. I decided to recommend Alfred Lansing’s retelling of the Endurance’s trip instead, in hopes it’s no less riveting but maybe a bit lighter on the supply lists. Shackleton intended to sail the Endurance until an appointed area of the Antarctic ice shelf, disembark, and then be the first man to cross the continent of Antarctica on foot. The Endurance’s fate ultimately mirrored that of the USS Jeannette, however. Mired in ice for 10 months, the men of The Endurance were forced to abandon their ship and their quest and embark on a perilous and near-impossible trip to try to find their way back home.
Do you have a favorite nonfiction title that covers an incredible voyage and is not included in this list? Please let me know in the comments!
This post contains affiliate links from Amazon.