Friday, July 22, 2011

Book Review -" The Cruelest Miles: The Heroic Story of Dogs and Men in a Race Against an Epidemic"

It's difficult in this day and age to relate to the struggles of prior generations, particularly since suffering continues even in this high tech world full of great medical clinicians and all kinds of meds.  This book was released to little fanfare back in 2003, even though I was so keen on it that I sent a copy to my former boss who happened to be running the Discovery Networks at the time.  I have no idea if he ever read it or if he even passed it on to folks at one of the Discovery Networks, including Animal Planet, but I recently reread the book and must admit it was an even better adventure in reading than I even remembered.

Authors Gay and Laney Salisbury know how to tell a good non-fiction story.  "The Cruelest Miles" is the true story of a group of mighty and courageous dogs.  Man's best friend?  How fast can one say, indeed.  Our dogs are great, but a sled team on a mission is a providential gift from God.  "The Cruelest Miles: The Heroic Story of Dogs and Men in a Race Against an Epidemic" is one of the finest historical non-fiction books of the last twenty years.  This is that proverbial must-read. 

The men involved in the story are pretty magnificent as well, so I don't want to just point out the remarkable achievements of the heroic dogs, but needless to say, the dogs pushed on through bad weather.  Really bad weather.

To this day, Alaska remains a mysterious place, but in the 1920's the place was basically mystical.  This is long before Alaska had become a state.  The book opens with the then head of the state (a governor, although again, not from an official U.S. state), Scott Bone calling Washington to tell them that they were battling a major diphtheria epidemic and the town of Nome only had one doctor, three nurses and no anti-diphtheria serum. 

Nome is at the upper reaches of the state and it was in the middle of a series of endless nights of darkness, frozen water areas and 60-below temperatures.  People died just from being in the elements.  The only way to save the townspeople was to get the serum, and the only way to reach the town of Nome at this point in the calendar season was via a dogsled team.  A 674 mile dogsled journey eventually did bring the much needed serum to the adults and children of Nome.  The story was a hot news item in the continental United States back in 1925.  People from all over the nation were interested in what would happen in the last American outpost. 

The book details the relationships between the men and their dogs, particularly with their lead dogs.  To be a lead dog you have to have character, courage and intelligence.  The Herculean heroics of all 20 men and all 200 of the dogs that took part in this massive endeavor deserve credit even eight plus decades later. Leonhard Seppala and Gunnar Kaasen were the men who received most of the attention and their lead dogs, Balto and Togo received most of the glory.  They are all legendary in dog sledding circles.  Balto undertook the treacherous and long final leg into Nome, but it was Togo who had the hardest and longest haul.  Balto is now immortalized in a statue in New York city's Central Park.  Stop by and visit.  Pay your respects.  Leave a dog bone.  

The Salisbury's do a superb job delving into the historical aspects of Nome, the Alaskan Gold Rush, dog sledding and the 49th state itself.

It's elegantly written and you'd have to be a complete curmudgeon not to be inspired.  Only bitter, angry and miserable people will not fall under the spell of these dog sled teams. The dogs had to paw down in blizzards, ice storms and whiteouts. 

Nome, Alaska sits on the Bering Sea two degrees below the Arctic Circle, so it's cold in Nome.  It's a cold most of us cannot comprehend.  This isn't a winter in a bad year in the Northern Plains.  This is cold that is not imaginable.

The authors capture a moment in  American history when a nation cared about a town far, far away and when the goal was accomplished, that same nation rallied behind the triumphant dog team.  If they could have created a national holiday I suppose they would have.  This is a breathtaking turn through a moment in time.  The history changing sled ride provided inspiration for the beginnings of the Iditarod race which continues through today.

The dogs were eventually dragged into a carnival-like tour that took them around the country to adoring fans, but as one would suspect, the evil people that controlled this kooky atmosphere left them dirty and hungry in a Los Angeles location.  A Cleveland millionaire heard of it and brought them to Cleveland to live out their lives in a respectable and humane manner.  Balto was eventually stuffed (after his death) and placed into the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.  The Alaskans aren't too crazy about that, but the commemoration is deserved no matter where it exists. The museum even hosts some old film footage of Balto who was a near black Siberian Husky.

Walden Media (the masters behind "The Chronicles of Narnia" films) holds the film rights for this book and it was announced back in January, 2010 that the film would be made, but it still hasn't gone into production and I wouldn't hold my breath that it will ever get produced.  Lots of projects get the greenlight, but few ever make it to the screen.  Hopefully, this film will get made since these men and dogs deserve to be remembered cinematically.   

Endurance. Fidelity. Intelligence.

Copyright 2011 Read on Read Now