This is the story of seventeen-year-old Billy Gawronksi, a stowaway (after a few attempts) on the ship Eleanor Bolling that followed Admiral Richard Byrd’s flagship to Antarctica. In the late 1920s, Byrd-mania had swept through America, igniting the imaginations of youth in New York City where his ships were docked before his grand polar adventure. Young Billy was not going to fall victim to a sad existence of life working in his father’s upholstery business. He was going to have a life of adventure, and nobody was going to thwart him. Billy’s chutzpah was without parallel, and his derring-do earned him a spot on the unknown continent.
Shapiro provides enough biographical information to make Billy’s motivations relevant and sympathetic without bogging down her reader with extraneous details. Billy’s story, along with those of other historical characters on Byrd’s first Antarctic expedition, is set against the backdrop of the Jazz Age in between the World Wars. Shapiro weaves in the significance of the Great Depression, the nationalistic pride in America’s heroes, and the onset of WWII on Billy’s decisions and career. Shapiro also doesn’t shy away from including the blatant racism and prejudice that affected Billy’s tenure, among other wannabe adventurers on Byrd’s expedition. Her perseverance in uncovering the details and admirable life story of this unknown boy-explorer is evident in the comprehensive story she presents to her readers.
The Stowaway filled a lot of gaps in my knowledge of American polar exploration. The stories of the lesser-known idealistic adventure-seekers who accompanied Byrd to Antarctica provided an interesting perspective of the polar-fever that had captured Americans during the beginning of the 20th century.
This book will appeal to many different readers: those interested in Polar exploration will, of course, love Billy’s tale, but anyone with a passing interest in early 20th century American history, particularly the immigrant experience, will find a great story in this book as well. Highly recommended.
Many thanks to Netgalley and Simon & Schuster for this advance copy in exchange for my review.