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A First Rate Tragedy, by Diana Preston. Published by Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin, 215 Park Avenue South, New York, New YOrk 10003. $14.00, paperback. 269 pages.

The race to be the first to reach the South Pole caught the imagination and fired the nationalism of a handful of explorers in the first decades of the 20th century. Among these explorers, none led so troubled a life and died so tragic a death as Captain Robert Falcon Scott. The dramatic events surrounding Scott’s two fateful expeditions to Antarctica have inspired a number of biographers and historians to tell and retell the story.

While fascinating, it is, in many respects, a tough story to tell fairly–not because facts are not available, but because Scott, his comrades, and his rivals all lived in a time very different from our own. It was a time when love of country was genuine and not tempered with cynicism; a time when personal honour was more highly regarded; when social class and ethnic background mattered very much; and when the growth of industrialized society inspired a reaction in the minds of many, which manifested itself in the desire to perform feats of physical prowess, unaided by mechanical conveniences.

This unique combination of biases and motivations makes it hard for modern biographers to fairly portray the likes of Scott and his Norwegian nemesis, Amundson, but Preston succeeds marvelously. Her even-handed analysis provides a balanced portrayal of Scott’s real failures and shortcomings and avoids judging him by anachronistic standards.

“The point,” she concludes, “is not that [Scott’s expedition] failed but that they so very nearly succeeded.” Interestingly, she points out, the pace of Antarctic exploration has come full circle. For decades, Scott has been ridiculed for attempting to reach the pole on foot, without the aid of sled dogs. In 1996, however, the Norwegian Borge Ousland crossed the frozen continent on foot and later commented, “It’s still possible to break the frontiers of human endurance in a plastic world where there are few genuine things to do.” Captain Scott might very well have said the same thing. Preston is not afraid to honour this intrepid spirit rather than just heaping further disdain on the unlucky Scott’s methods. It’s a refreshing change.

Bruce Heydt