The Cruelest Miles by Gay and Laney Salisbury
Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: You won’t be able to argue the “man’s best friend” moniker after this book!

Quick synopsis: Description of the 1935 Serum Run to Nome, Alaska which was the precursor to the Iditarod.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: One story about sled dogs entailed how a musher fell in a hole and the lead dog went to get help and came right back to where the musher was trapped. It was not a short trip.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: The real (dog) hero of the story is often remembered as Balto since he was the lead dog on the last leg of the journey. However, Togo did the longest and hardest part of the trip and never did get the recognition he deserved. I want to get a dog and name him Togo, but my wife loves little dogs so it would look ridiculous.

My Take: Amazingly, there are not many books on this chapter in history and luckily the authors give you everything you need to understand the stakes from beginning to end. The opening chapters of the book are horrific in setting the stage. They carefully explain the genesis of the diphtheria epidemic in Nome and truly make the setting feel isolated from the outside world. This could easily turn into some zombie book with the way the tension is set.

Then we get to the dogs and their trusty human sidekicks. Unless you are a cat person (hey, no judgment), this is where the book will really grab you. Learning about how sled dogs come to be and just how unbelievably smart and loyal they are will bring tears to your eyes. Once the actual run begins, the authors make you feel the cold and the desperation as each sled team battles extreme conditions. I found by the end it was hard to believe this story had a happy ending. The amount of times something could have easily ended the run was hard to fathom.

There is a side story about various people trying to get a plane to carry the serum to Nome. I completely understand why the authors have it in their narrative. It is a big piece of the historical record. However, every time I heard about the plane I wanted to just jump back to the dogs.

If you are squeamish, there are various sections which can really turn your stomach. The descriptions of the babies and children with diphtheria learn little to the imagination. It goes without saying not all the dogs and mushers made it through completely unscathed.

If you really don’t like the cold you should probably stay away too.

Verdict: This is a must read. Except if you don’t like dogs. And if you don’t like dogs, then you need to reevaluate your life. And don’t come at me with why cats are better because that’s ridiculous.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Gary Krist, The White Cascade
  • David Geren Brown, White Hurricane
  • David Laskin, The Children’s Blizzard (Holy cow this one is sad. You’ve been warned.)
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The Cruelest Miles by Gay and Laney Salisbury
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