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The polar adventures of a rich American dame. A life of Louise Arner Boyd. Joanna Kafarowski. 2017. Toronto: Dundurn. 368 p, softcover. ISBN 978-1-45973-970-3. $24.99.

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  31 May 2018

Justiina Dahl*
KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Division of History of Science, Technology and Environment, Tekninkringen 74D, plan 5, SE-10044 Stockholm, Sweden (
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Book Review
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2018 

Louise Arner Boyd was the first woman to set foot on Northbrook Island, Jan Mayen (1926), to fly across the North Pole (1955), and to map an area on the east coast of Greenland that carries her name today. Joanna Kafarowski's work is the first book-length biography of this American adventurer who ‘overcame the social constraints imposed on women of her class and her time and who defined what it meant to be a polar explorer’ (p 311). The research into the life of one of the first women to break the ‘ice ceiling’ in polar exploration has been admirably done. Anyone interested in polar adventures in the first half of the twentieth century will definitely find an interesting quote or two in the book. However, it is the frequency of these often quite lengthy quotations combined with the lack of (analytical) engagement with the social and political surroundings of the life and achievements of Boyd that make the work seem more like a first draft than a final polished product.

Part I of the book describes the family background and early years of its protagonist. The photographs of Louise and her family embedded in the text illustrate the rapid social, political and economic changes that the Unites States was undergoing during Louise's childhood and early adulthood. There is, however, no discussion of these changes in the text. Kafarowski describes how Louise was born as the third child to a successful American gold rush pioneer in San Rafael, California in 1886. After the devastating deaths of her two brothers in 1901 and 1902 Louise became the sole heir to her father's fortune. She inherited this fortune the same year that women gained the legal right to vote in the United States – one of the many significant social and political developments that Kafarowski fails to connect in developing the story of her ‘unlikely heroine’ (p 21). After the death of her parents, Louise continued to live as an unmarried heiress and social philanthropist. Following the trend of her social class of Americans in the ‘roaring twenties’ she also visited Europe, travelling all the way up to Spitzbergen in 1924. After these more standard pleasure trips, she executed ‘the first Arctic sea voyage planned, organized and financed by a woman’ at the age of 39 (p 72).

The destination of the first Louise A. Boyd (LAB) expedition was Franz Josef Land, in the summer of 1926. The vessel that Louise leased for the occasion was the Norwegian polar ship Hobby under the command of the Spanish mariner Francis J. de Gisbert. On board were the crew and three of Louise's personal friends. The trip was a success. The ship reached Franz Josef Land and Louise got to practise her photography. Additional excitement for the expedition participants came from each of the two women onboard getting to shoot a polar bear. Louise celebrated this achievement by having her photograph taken with her kill and her weapon (p 79). This memento of one of her ‘trophies’ from her first self-organised and self-funded trip is one example of the many ways in which Louise's Arctic explorations and ambitions not only defied (because of her gender) but also mirrored those of her white male contemporaries. In the light of Kafarowski's account of the second LAB expedition this is another intriguing aspect about Louise and her breaking the ‘ice ceiling’ in polar exploration that this biography leaves unexplored.

Part II, The Call of Adventure, reviews the next five LAB expeditions, which took place in 1928, 1931, 1933 and 1937. The second LAB adventure of 1928 originally aimed to explore the east coast of Greenland. After Roald Amundsen went missing while searching for Umberto Nobile, Boyd volunteered her resources to the international search effort for the Norwegian polar hero. The condition for this gift was that Louise, a female friend and the friend's husband could tag along. The description of this mission is one of the more pleasing chapters of the book.

The participants in the search for Amundsen were all seasoned and well-known international polar explorers. They did not hide their initial displeasure with Louise's presence, with her make-up, ‘well-shampooed and waived hair’, and well-tailored suits (p 105). When the two American women dressed more sensibly in heavy jackets and leather caps when helping out on the deck, they did not stand out so patently in the crowd. When Louise learnt of their treatment as ‘two of the boys’, she took extra effort to highlight that they were not only women, but ladies who wore Chanel No. 5 on board Hobby, during the second LAB mission (pp 111–113). How their onboard appearances were deceptive of their general conformity to the social and class norms of their time was further highlighted when – to the surprise of Hjalmar Riiser-Larsen, who visited Hobby during the search for Amundsen – Louise and her friend Julia returned to Oslo in 1928 to receive a Royal Norwegian Order of St Olav wearing the latest Parisian fashions: ‘This is what we have sailed with for the last three months in the open northern ice???’, Riiser-Larsen wrote in his diary about the reunion with the two women (p 120).

Kafarowski alludes to how Louise's participation in the Amundsen search mission in the summer of 1928 not only introduced her to ‘travails onboard of a polar vessel’ and gave her ‘glimpses of a life usually hidden from those in her sophisticated circle’ (p 125). It also opened the doors for her into networks of polar explorers previously inaccessible to a woman seeking to make her own mark in polar history. As with the lack of contextual analysis relating to how at the same time as Boyd was organising her expeditions, women were entering and pursuing educational paths previously unavailable to them, Kafarowski does not go into any depth when discussing the meaningfulness of these connections for the development of Louise's future polar aspirations and achievements. In short, beyond a few direct quotes from newspapers that in 1937 reported how ‘women do about everything that men try to do these days’ (p 199), she neglects to provide a richer texture to Boyd's story, through failing to weave her protagonist's achievements into the zeitgeist of the progress of women's liberation.

Part III of the book summarises the last two maritime LAB expeditions that Boyd financed and organised, to Greenland in 1938 and 1941, as well as the ‘dame's’ final visit to the north at the age of 68, in 1955. When the United States assumed responsibility for Greenland's defense in 1941, the scientific contributions of the LAB expeditions and Boyd's interest in polar explorations were integrated into the American war effort. Consequently, without the knowledge of the scientists invited to come along, the last maritime LAB expedition, in 1941, was organised in coordination with the National Bureau of Standards, to serve its need for information from east Greenland. Louise executed her final polar expedition in 1955 through becoming the first woman to fly across the North Pole after 1955. Kafarowski closes the book by trying to personally enter the emotional life of her heroine in a manner that is repeated throughout the book; for example, how Louise ‘would have wanted to’ (meet Amundsen in San Francisco in 1906) (p 50); ‘must have felt restless and anxious’ (when returning from being presented at Buckingham Palace in 1925 (p 67); and spent her final years in a financial struggle, which ‘must have been an agonizing period for Louise’ (p 293).

In sum, Kafarowski has done a good job in recording and chronicling the life and achievement of Louise Arner Boyd. She has organised her wealth of primary sources into a temporally fluently flowing selection of quotes that give a convincing account of what happened when in Louise's life. Beyond recounting the achievements of this ‘rich American dame,’ the work does not include any explanation for why or how her polar adventures ‘challenged the ideal of a polar explorer as defined by manliness, stoicism, and heroism’ (p 309) and, most importantly, what they (and the lack of attention they have received in the historiography of polar exploration) tell us about women's struggle for recognition, rights and responsibilities in polar science and society.

Because of its richness in primary research materials, I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the history of polar exploration in the early twentieth century, as well as to future historians looking for a fascinating new research topic.