There’s a ghostly quality to much of David Grann’s nonfiction. It manifests variously, trailing annihilations both concrete and abstract. He’s written about seekers who became phantasmal figures, to differing extents, in the lives of their loved ones. In Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, he details a murderous conspiracy that targeted the Osage Nation in the early 20th century. In his New Yorker essay “Trial by Fire,” he reports on a man who, after being placed on death row through flimsy evidence, sensed “that his life was slowly being erased.” And there’s also, among other examples, “A Murder Foretold,” Grann’s piece about a Guatemalan lawyer’s response to the murder of his fiancé and her father. We learn that the lawyer pored over surveillance footage of the moments preceding the crime. At one point, he longingly “touched the television screen—she was there but not there.”
That gesture is faintly echoed in Grann’s latest book, The White Darkness. In 2003, Henry Worsley, the book’s subject, traveled to the gravesite of Ernest Shackleton, the polar explorer. Upon arriving, he extended his hand toward the tombstone. Worsley, who served in the British army and completed two tours with the Special Air Service, regarded Shackleton as a hero. In order to reach the gravesite, he traveled to the far shores of South Georgia Island in the southern Atlantic Ocean. And he would, in the years that followed, travel farther still. In 2008, after much preparation, he began his first expedition across Antarctica. And he later decided to attempt two more.