“I decided to spend the rest of my life in Thule,” he wrote. “To be all that a father should be — to make my son strong and brave and good and to help him avoid all my mistakes.” A daughter, Pipaluk, soon followed.
But as the book’s title suggests, Freuchen had trouble staying put. Invited by Rasmussen to join the Fifth Thule Expedition, a yearslong attempt to document the lives of Inuit peoples from Greenland to Siberia, Freuchen and Navarana could not refuse. On the eve of the departure, she contracted influenza and died. Freuchen blamed himself, believing that if she had stayed in the north she might have avoided the epidemic that had likely infected one-third of the world.
“If I had not been so selfish she would still be alive,” he wrote. “She was a finer and better person than anyone I have ever known, but the world saw her only as a little Eskimo girl who was to be looked down upon or ignored.”
After browbeating the local clergy to bury Navarana in the churchyard, Freuchen continued with the expedition, leaving his children in the care of family and friends. (Mitenbuler does not dwell on what it says about Freuchen that he was willing to leave his motherless children for years at a time.) While in Canada, he became trapped overnight in a snowbank. He escaped — in his telling — by using his own frozen feces to hack a hole in the ice. His frostbitten foot never recovered and he had to amputate the toes, one at a time, with pliers and a ball-peen hammer. His adventuring days were through.
It’s at this point that “Wanderlust” falters. Freuchen spent the next 30 years having fascinating experiences — he wrote for Hollywood, sheltered refugees from the Nazis and even won “The $64,000 Question” in 1956. This second half of his life could have been covered in a few chapters or even a lengthy epilogue, but Mitenbuler stretches it out for almost 200 pages. Even so, “Wanderlust” is a compelling introduction to one of the most charismatic explorers to ever cross the ice.
W.M. Akers is a novelist and editor whose latest novel, “Pocket Full of Stars,” is being serialized in the newsletter Strange Times.
WANDERLUST: An Eccentric Explorer, an Epic Journey, a Lost Age | By Reid Mitenbuler | Illustrated | 512 pp. | Mariner Books | $45