George Murray Levick was the physician on Robert Falcon Scott’s tragic Antarctic expedition of 1910. Marooned for an Antarctic winter, Levick passed the time by becoming the first man to study penguins up close. His findings were so shocking to Victorian morals that they were quickly suppressed and seemingly lost to history. A century later, Lloyd Spencer Davis rediscovers Levick and his findings during the course of his own scientific adventures in Antarctica. Levick’s long-suppressed manuscript reveals not only an incredible survival story, but one that will change our understanding of an entire species.
I’m fairly well versed in the literature of the Arctic and Antarctic, but I’m not sure I’ve encountered any book about these regions that aims to do as much as Davis’s. Not only does he offer readers an insightful and bawdy primer on the breeding habits of Adélie, King and Emperor penguins, he offers an absorbing history of his own Antarctic fieldwork and a glimpse into the private lives of Levick and several important polar explorers of the era ... At his best, Davis draws provocative connections between these men and their work. But when the links are strained, which is often the case, the results can be disorienting. You feel as if you’re struggling through a whiteout, trying to keep track of people, places and events that are (literally) poles apart ... Nevertheless, A Polar Affair offers a timely illumination of a mysterious and vital ecosystem.
... an interesting blend of polar history and natural history ... In these pages one sees human knowledge inching forward ... There is plenty of gripping information here about the habits of the hapless Adélies, notably their breeding, which takes place from late October to late January. These passages are the best in the book ... The book includes a biographical sketch of Levick—though the man remains shrouded in the penumbrae of history and one never gets a sense of him ... The history of the whole expedition in A Polar Affair will be useful for those not familiar with the Scott saga, as will, indeed, the details of previous Antarctic exploration and even the Peary and Cook drama at the other end of the earth. I wonder, though, how many who pick up this new volume won’t already know all that. Despite the paucity of information about Levick, there is enough chiaroscuro in his story, and Mr. Davis’s spotlight might have been better trained on it ... The prose style occasionally jars ... A propensity for cliché doesn’t help ... Worse, Mr. Davis tries to link the penguin story with the human one.
...[an] enthralling account ... With treacherous ice floes entrapping ships, invisible crevasses that became deathtraps, scurvy, frostbite and much, much more, Davis’ Antarctica is a vividly described, unforgiving world of ice and wind—where, by the way, freezing, starving men had to eat their dogs and ponies, and on Sundays gathered for Bible readings and hymns ... Somehow, Davis serves it all up with wit and a wry, irrepressible sense of humor, while imparting everything there is to know about penguins.