When Ernest Shackleton sailed his ship Endurance to the Antarctic, there was more on board than merely men, stores and a dream. There was Mrs Chippy, actually a male cat. Mrs. Chippy’s Last Expedition
is a feline-level view of that unfortunate journey, at least the first, less horrifying part. And it is charming. Our family is fond of cats. We share our home with five at present, among which is Madison. I often refer to her as my four-legged wife (as opposed to my two-legged variety, and of course my eight-legged ex) as she spends most of my sleeping time curled up against me. The others have very distinct personalities of their own, but they are all loved and appreciated. So, we look kindly on things cat-ish. Thus the appeal of Mrs Chippy. We get to see many members of the crew through his eyes, as the book is set up as Chippy’s memoir, complete with footnotes. The author captures the timbre of an alpha feline. Having once had one who functioned as a union rep for the household cat population, I know what that looks like. There is a combination of arrogance, curiosity, playfulness, love and an abiding appreciation for food to such creatures and it has been captured quite well here. But Chippy is merely the ploy. The real story is in the details of life aboard one of the most famous of all nautical voyages. One learns about the ship’s routine, what tasks needed to be done, a little of the personalities of the crew, and some detail on the on-board experience during the time the ship was stranded in the middle of an Antarctic ice field. The author offers a fair bit of humor as well, best expressed when Chippy is commenting on how awful the sled dogs can be, and in how he goes out of his way to torment them.
This is not compelling reading, by any stretch, but is informative and entertaining. My only gripe is that the story ends too soon. The great drama of this expedition was Shackleton’s heroic effort to sail north in a small boat to get help for the left-behind (no, not in a rapture way) crew. I would have liked Chippy’s view there, either with Shackleton or with those stranded at the bottom of the world.