I read it during my trip home for the holidays to Milan, and it made for the perfect wintry read. It’s relatively short, but the author does a really great job at keeping the right balance of adventure and history as she tells the incredible story of young stowaway Billy and his daring attempts to make it to Antarctica. Definitely a good one to read under a cozy blanket with a mug of cocoa!
Publication Date: January 16th 2018
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Length in hardcover: 256 pages
Goodreads rating: 3.89
The spectacular, true story of a scrappy teenager from New York’s Lower East Side who stowed away on the Roaring Twenties’ most remarkable feat of science and daring: an expedition to Antarctica. From the grimy streets of New York’s Lower East Side to the rowdy dance halls of sultry Francophone Tahiti, all the way to Antarctica’s blinding white and deadly freeze, Laurie Gwen Shapiro’s The Stowaway takes you on the unforgettable voyage of a gutsy young stowaway who became an international celebrity, a mascot for an up-by-your bootstraps age.
Lots of historical context. I really appreciated the way in which the author went into detail about the history of Billy the stowaway’s family. Shapiro starts from the Gawronski’s immigration to Poland, Billy’s birth and his parent’s home decor enterprise, and only then leads into the central story of the expedition to Antarctic in which Billy participated. The reader really feels they know Billy and the Gawronski family well therefore, once Billy decides to attempt to run away to Antarctica. Aside from the Gawronski’s backstory, Shapiro also provides really useful context on previous similar expeditions carried out to the North and South Poles, with interesting historical details both at the beginning of the book and peppered throughout the narrative that enhance the reader’s understanding of Billy’s story.
The stowaway. Billy’s story is truly incredible and the real reason to read this book. The perseverance and passion that led this young teenager to pursue a life of adventure are truly admirable and uncommon. In attempting to board one of the ships heading off to Antarctica, Billy risks his life by jumping into the frigid waters of the Hudson, with no specific plan as to how he’ll make it onto the ship or stay concealed long enough to not be dropped back off at port before its departure for the icy continent. This is truly amazing considering that very few people at the time had ever set foot on Antarctica and there had been so many doomed expeditions to the Poles already. Billy’s courage is exciting and inspiring, transporting the reader with his enthusiasm for discovery and adventure.
Other characters. I was absolutely dumbstruck to discover that Billy was only one of several stowaways that attempted to hitch a ride to Antarctica on this particular expedition. Apparently it was not an unusual attempt either for this journey or the ones that preceded it, though Billy’s success at it was certainly out of the norm. I also found it absolutely captivating to learn about the lives of other sailors who joined Billy’s same exploration, including the discrimination experienced by African American sailors that occasionally found themselves included as part of polar crews, and the struggles that many of the sailors faced upon returning and trying to re-enter the work market in the United States during the Great Depression.
Wanted more about the expedition itself. I loved the amount of context that the author provided about Billy’s life before the expedition, his efforts to be part of the journey, and the fate of many of the sailors once the expedition had ended. The narrative was a bit unbalanced, however when it comes to details about the life and experiences of the men once they arrived to Antarctica itself. Billy had only a limited role in camp life in Antarctica, which may be why the author didn’t provide more details on this part of the story, but it was definitely a let down for me. After all, if you’ve followed a plot all the way to the edge of the world, you want to be a part of what takes place once you get there. I would have also loved to see more primary documents from other sailors included in the narrative, like journals or letters.
An exciting story about an uncommonly passionate young man, that will take you all the way to the icy banks of Antarctica and educate you on aspects of American history at the beginning of the 1900s – including other polar expeditions and the life of American sailors.
Laurie Gwen Shapiro is a native of New York City’s Lower East Side. She has most recently written articles for publications including The New Yorker, New York Magazine, The Daily Beast, Slate, Aeon, Los Angeles Review of Books, and has her own history column focusing on unsung heroes for The Forward. Shapiro is also a documentary filmmaker who won an Independent Spirit Award for directing IFC’s Keep the River On Your Right: A Modern Cannibal Tale and an Emmy nomination for producing HBO’s Finishing Heaven. The Stowaway is her first non-fiction book.
Have you read The Stowaway? What did you think? Let me know in the comments.
You can also read my other recent Just Read reviews, including for the audiobook of Evicted by Matthew Desmond, Isabel Allende’s new novel In The Midst Of Winter, historical fiction novels Carnegie’s Maid by Marie Benedict, The Last Days Of Night by Graham Moore and The Rules Of Magic by Alice Hoffman, contemporary novel The Best Kind Of People by Zoe Whittall, and political memoir What Happened by Hillary Clinton.
Please note this post contains affiliate links from Book Depository. Thank you to Net Galley and the publisher for providing a copy of this title in exchange for an honest review.