The Top of the World

Captain Mac: The Life of Donald Baxter MacMillan, Arctic Explorer
By Mary Morton Cowan
(Calkins Creek, Honesdale, PA, 2010, $17.95)

Donald Baxter MacMillan, known affectionately as Captain Mac, spent almost fifty years exploring the Arctic. During his time in the Far North, he studied minerals, plant life, animals, and the language and customs of the various Inuit people. His knowledge of northern coastlines helped the United States during World War II. Traveling hundreds of miles by dog sled across the ice, he braved hunger, hypothermia, and charging polar bears and walruses. He formed strong friendships with Inuit hunters and their families and even, briefly, adopted a polar bear cub.

In Captain Mac, Mary Morton Cowan captures both the high adventure of MacMillan’s life and his cheerful, resilient character. She introduces readers to nautical terminology and the Inuit language MacMillan studied, incorporating both sailing and Inuit vocabulary into the text. Orphaned at young age, the sea captain’s son worked his way through college, never daring to hope he might one day attain his dream of exploring the Arctic. A chance meeting with polar explorer Robert Peary led to his first expedition. Cowan describes MacMillan’s easy leadership style, which allowed him to maintain control of his ship while befriending his crew. On his many journeys, he organized athletic contests, concerts, and even film nights to boost his crew’s morale through the long, bleak winters. Finally, Cowan relates one of Captain Mac’s less well-known, but equally dramatic battles: his efforts to ensure that Matthew Henson, an African-American explorer who reached the North Pole with Peary, received recognition.

At 181 pages, Captain Mac is much longer than most middle-grade and young-adult biographies. But MacMillan’s life was anything but tedious, and neither is Cowan’s narrative. Her account of MacMillan’s adventures, coupled with the explorers’ own photos, bring the Arctic to life. After finishing Captain Mac, imaginative readers will dream of a land of ice and sky and think about settling sail on a few voyages of their own.

©Dorothy A. Dahm

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