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Antarctic adventure – ‘The Stowaway’

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What would you be willing to do to gain the opportunity to experience an adventure of a lifetime? What risks would you take to take part in something historic? How far would you go? Would you travel to the ends of the earth?

For Billy Gawronski, the answer to that last question was “Yes.”

Young Billy is the star of Laurie Gwen Shapiro’s new book “The Stowaway: A Young Man’s Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica” (Simon & Schuster, $26). It’s the true story of a teenager who wanted nothing more than to take part in a great adventure – specifically, to be a part of Richard Byrd’s expedition to Antarctica. And with nothing more than overflowing reserves of desire and chutzpah, Billy made it so.

In the year 1928, there are only a few unknowns left to be explored. Perhaps the biggest of the bunch is Antarctica – the last true frontier. Explorer Richard Byrd is assembling an expedition to give that icy continent its most thorough going-over ever. The centerpiece of the mission is to be the first flyover of the South Pole, an effort to observe the heretofore unobservable.

And Billy Gawronski wants in.

The Polish teenager lives on the Lower East Side with his parents. He’s a first-generation American and a recent high school graduate with a gift for languages and a thirst for adventure. His father has his future planned out for him – joining him in the family upholstery and design business – but Billy wants something more.

So the night before Byrd’s ships are to head out to sea, Billy leaps into the Hudson River. A strong swimmer, he makes his way to one of the ships and ensconces himself in a hiding place he had spied during an earlier guided tour. And then … he waits.

What follows is a multi-year journey, one which sees Billy knocked down and disappointed, only to repeatedly rise to the occasion and eventually, through sheer grit and will, carve out a niche as part of one of the most notable adventures of the early 20th century.

Nearly a century removed from that adventure, it’s easy for us to forget just how harrowing a journey this was and how courageous those who took part in it were. These men spent months traveling to one of the harshest environs on the planet so that they might build a camp and live in icy darkness for months before actually having the opportunity to undertake the exploration that was at the heart of their mission.

Billy Gawronski was a part of it. It took repeated efforts and a willingness to take on any task, no matter how difficult and/or unpleasant, but he made himself a part of this expedition. And along the way, he became a media celebrity – the story of the stowaway made good became huge in the New York newspapers (a fact that was not lost on Byrd, who understood that the mission was powered in no small part by publicity).

“The Stowaway” captures the freewheeling wildness of the time, placing Byrd’s mission in the greater context of the era while also focusing on the adventures (and occasional misadventures) of Billy Gawronski. It’s a wonderful macro/micro examination – sharp and informative.

There’s no question that this is an adventure story for the ages, the kind of truth that is stranger than fiction. Shapiro embraces the challenges inherent to the outsized true-life narrative, bringing a storytelling flair to the proceedings that makes the book easily-devoured and entertaining as hell. She brings Billy to life, painting a vivid portrait of a mostly-forgotten figure who was a legitimate folk hero in his time.

Most of us have an at least passing familiarity with Admiral Byrd and his adventures, but so many of the people around him – the people who made his accomplishments possible – have faded into the background of history. Billy Gawronski wasn’t a pilot or a scientist or anything of the sort, but he was, for a time, one of the most famous members of the Antarctic expedition. That’s not nothing, and we’re lucky to have someone like Shapiro to relate his story to us in such a propulsive and compulsively readable fashion.

“The Stowaway” brings history to life in the manner of the very best nonfiction. It is a compelling tale well-told, introducing us to a headstrong and courageous young man that we might never have met otherwise. And that would have been a real shame.

Last modified on Tuesday, 23 January 2018 18:09

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