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Friday, January 29, 2010

The Cruelest Miles

The Cruelest Miles: The Heroic Story of Dogs
and Men in a Race Against an Epidemic
by Gay Salisbury & Laney Salisbury
317 pages


*** About the Book ***

This is a non-fiction account of the 1925 Serum Run. The ice bound town of Nome, Alaska was stuck with an outbreak of diphtheria, "the strangling disease", which mainly affects children and is often fatal. The vital anti-serum had to be shipping from Seattle by train approximately 2,000 miles into Alaska; from there it was transported over 600 miles via dogsled in a blizzard in just over 5 days - a feat that was practically a miracle.

The book describes the development of dog-sledding in Alaska, other outbreaks of diphtheria, and of course the Serum Run itself. Attention is given to the men who participated in the dog-sled relay and to their experiences afterward.


*** Why I Read It ***

Back in January '09 I wrote about some books I wanted to read and mentioned that I love books about disease and about the polar regions. In her comment on my post Dreamybee suggested two books that I might enjoy, THE CRUELEST MILES being one of them. Based on that comment I got a copy from Paperbackswap.com and have had it on my bookshelf since July. As part of the TBR 2010 Challenge I'm working on reading books I already own so this was the perfect choice.


*** My Thoughts ***

I'd heard of the Serum Run and seen the cartoon based on it (see the trailer below) but that was all I really knew about this event in history. I definitely learned a lot from reading this book and I enjoyed it as well. It is exactly the type of non-fiction I enjoy: well-written, engaging, and about a topic I find interesting.

The book's format worked well for me. Chapters alternated between the developing outbreak of diphtheria and the history of Nome and dog-sledding. The historical chapters were helpful to me because they provided background that made the outbreak, it's repercussions, and the delivery of the serum easy to understand. Another important storyline was the conflict between technology and tradition, with opposing factions pushing for the serum to either be delivered by plane (air deliveries were then being introduced in Alaska) or by dog-sled.

The parts I enjoyed the most were the sections that focused on the dog-sled drivers themselves. Not much is known about many of the men who participated in the Serum Run. Although some were quite famous, most of them lived quiet lives and got very little media attention after the fact. The famous ones were VERY famous though; it was interesting (and at times sad) to read how their lives changed in the following years. But it was the fate of some of the dogs that really got to me. There definitely were not happy endings all around, although there were some good things that happened.

It's strange how the circumstances in which you're reading can sometimes make or break a book. The events of the Serum Run took place in late January/early February 1925; I was reading the book in late January during very cold weather, so that enhanced my enjoyment quite a bit. At the same time, I had strep throat so bad that it was almost impossible to swallow, so reading about children with diphtheria who were slowly strangling to death as their throats became covered in a mucus membrane was even more chilling to me.


*** Movies ***

The story of the Serum Run was made into a cartoon called Balto in 1995. Although it is a cute story it is only very loosely based on fact. Still, it gets the point across and it is fun to watch. Here's a trailer in case you've never seen it.




*** Your Thoughts ***

The only post I could find about this book was a list of recommendations from Dreamybee. In it she mentions that her memory of the doctor could be off, and I have to say that it is. The doctor had actually ordered a new case of serum several months before the outbreak but it never came in on the delivery ships.

Are you familiar with the history of the Serum Run? Have you read this book? Seen the cartoon? Is there a time or place in history that you seem to read about all the time, like me with my fixation on the polar regions?

16 comments:

Literary Feline said...

Oh my goodness! Do you know how long this book has been on my wish list? Of course you don't, but it's been a long time. I don't know why I haven't yet gotten my hands on a copy to read. I am glad you enjoyed it, Heather.

I caught the end of Balto awhile ago and really enjoyed it--it reminded me of this book at the time. I really do need to get a copy and read it.

Ryan G said...

Thank you so much for the review, my son loves the movie and I would like to read more about it for the background.

Heather J. said...

Literary Feline - I'm happy to send you my copy! Just email me your address. :)

Ryan G - Like I said, the movie is only LOOSELY based on the actual facts, but that doesn't make it any less fun. Glad to know there are other people out there who are familiar with the movie though!

Lisa said...

My son loved the movie Balto when he was little. Now that he's 21, I'll bet he'd love to read the real story.

DebD said...

I'd seen Balto when my oldest was little and knew that it was based on the Serum Run, but have never read about it. I'll have to put this book into my TBR pile for book club.

Thanks!

Heather J. said...

Lisa - What a great idea! I hope he'll enjoy learning the real story now.

DebD - I think this would be good one to discuss with a book club. There's the conflict between the modern and the traditional, the discussion of what could have been done differently, and also the effects of fame.

ibeeeg said...

I must remember to read this book. It sounds like it would fit my reading niche as well as my 14 year old daughter's. Balto...must pull that movie out for the younger children to watch.
Thanks for you insightful review.

Dreamybee said...

Oops!-I'm glad you set the record straight on the doctor and that you enjoyed the book. Sorry you felt terrible though. :(

Callista said...

I've not even heard of the Serum Run although it sounds interesting, I might like the book. I don't love books about the polar regions but I do enjoy books about diseases (as weird as that sounds.) Do you only like memoirs and the like or are you interested in pure nonfiction? I read a book about the mosquito and the diseases it can carry. It was a heavy read but I enjoyed it.

Mosquito : a natural history of our most persistent and deadly foe
Spielman, A. (Andrew)

Beth F said...

Thanks for this great review. I've been curious about this book -- and now I see that I should add it to my list. This is just my kind of read.

Alyce said...

The only information that I know about the serum run is related to the Balto movie (which I have to be in the right mood to watch because it always makes me cry). I like reading books about survival/medical crises, especially true stories, so I'll have to keep this one in mind.

Heather J. said...

ibeeg - This would be a great book to discuss with someone else - I hope you and your daughter both enjoy it.

Dreamybee - Thanks so much for recommending this book to me!

Callista - Nonfiction is GREAT! Thanks for the suggestion, I will definitely look into that book. And since you like disease books I highly recommend THE HOT ZONE - it is a creepy but fascinating true story.

Beth F - Another one for the TBR. :)

Alyce - I think you'll enjoy this one if you give it a shot!

Jenny Girl said...

I have never heard of this, but anything sad with animals is not for me. Human tradegy I can take, because humans know what is going on, and can fight or prepare themselves. Animals have no idea, and I can't take that. Crazy, maybe, but that's just how I feel.
Plus I would keep checking on my dog every 5 minutes and she is already spoiled. Interesting story, maybe someday I'll be able to read it.
Great review.

Heather J. said...

Jenny Girl - Oh I understand that for sure! It was one of the things that really got to me in this book. It's still a great read, but maybe it's not the one for you. :)

Lisa said...

This looks good - I love stories of exploration and adventure. I will definitely be adding it to my wish list. Thanks for the review!

Heather J. said...

Lisa - It sounds like this one would be right up your alley!

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