Into Siberia, George Kennan’s Epic Journey through the Brutal, Frozen Heart of Russia by Gregory J. Wallance, St. Martin’s Press, 284 pages, $27.

Martha’s Vineyard is famous for eerie coincidences, some touching luminaries who live here. One such astonishing story literally tumbled out of the woodwork of an old Oak Bluffs building and landed on our kitchen table in Vineyard Haven.

On a Sunday morning last June, I met some friends at our home to introduce them to our new Russian tutor, Anna McCaffrey.

Anna was born in Russia, married an American and has lived on Martha’s Vineyard for several years. She works for the health department in Chilmark, and she had graciously agreed to help us learn to speak better Russian.

One of these Russophile friends is my neighbor Grace Kennan Warnecke, whose father George F. Kennan famously crafted the American diplomatic stance toward the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Grace has served on diplomatic missions to Russia and after the Berlin Wall came down she worked in Ukraine for years, empowering Ukrainian women to set up small business enterprises.

I told our new tutor Anna that she might enjoy reading Grace’s fascinating autobiography, Daughter of the Cold War. Anna told me that on her way home she picked up a copy of Grace’s book and started reading it.

At the beginning of Grace’s book she notes that her father had been named for an uncle, also George Kennan, who had traveled extensively in Siberia during the 19th century and caused a sensation in America by writing a series of articles exposing the deplorable and inhuman conditions of the Tsar’s Siberian penal colonies.

Now the coincidence: two days later, building inspector Adam Petkus stepped into Anna’s office with a leather-bound copy of The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine from October, 1889 which he found in the basement wall of the old Red Cat restaurant building on Kennebec avenue in Oak Bluffs that was being demolished.

The lead article in that edition was by George Kennan, an illustrated account of political prisoners laboring as slaves in silver mines in Siberia.

Anna brought the leather bound magazine to our next Russian meeting, and we all were stunned. How had that 19th century piece of writing, hidden away in that Oak Bluffs wall for over a century, peculiarly fallen into the hands of a 21st-century Kennan?

Just another unlikely Vineyard coincidence? Call it that. But my amazement spiraled further in December, when I spotted notices of a new book: Into Siberia, George Kennan’s Epic Journey into the Frozen, Brutal Heart of Russia by Gregory J. Wallance.

The book utterly captivated me. Much of Into Siberia reads like a Jack London adventure thriller. The lively story is packed with action, irony and gruesome depictions of suffering. Mr. Wallance scoured George Kennan’s unpublished diaries as well as original sources from the era and more recent scholarly accounts. The finished product is a magnificent weaving of Kennan’s epic journeys and his journalistic and lecturing careers, as well as his personal life, into a thoroughly gripping and informative historical saga.

How a 20-year-old self-described weakling telegraph operator in Cincinnati could, through force of will, sail off and then march and dog sled and reindeer sled deep into the snowy, blighted bleakness of Siberia in 1865 and report his existential struggles to the world is frankly miraculous.

George Kennan’s mission on that first journey was to scout the bleak and frigid Siberian terrain for a proposed Western Union telegraph cable line from Alaska, then Russian, all the way to Moscow. Kennan’s account of his adventures on that expedition (Tent Life in Siberia, 1870) established his reputation as a travel writer.

Twenty years later, the mature Kennan returned to Siberia as a reporter for The Century. His stirring depictions of the squalor and diseases and horrors of the Tsar’s prisons fundamentally changed America’s previously friendly attitudes toward Russia’s Tsarist regime. Kennan’s descriptions of the thousands of prisoners, many of them political exiles, marching dolefully along the thousands of miles of the Siberian Post Road toward their grim futures as slave laborers, chills the modern spine, as it did when Kennan’s 29 articles in The Century hit the American public’s gut.

For a Russian’s opinion of George Kennan, look no further than Count Leo Tolstoy himself, who entertained Kennan one afternoon on his estate Yasnaya Polyana outside Moscow. Tolstoy said Kennan was “an agreeable and sincere man, although one with partitions separating his soul from his head – partitions of which we Russians have no understanding.”

Happily, a peculiar Vineyard coincidence introduced me to this remarkable hero. I salute author Gregory J. Wallance for his compelling portrait of the intrepid first Kennan, whose incredible tales first came to me by way of some discarded woodwork from the demolished Red Cat building.

Alas, though George Kennan was of a previous era, his concerns for political prisoners in Siberia apply also to contemporary Russia. Indeed, before the title page, Mr. Wallance dedicates his Into Siberia “To Alexei Navalny,” thus ringing a mordant knell to honor the heroic modern avatar of Russian resistance to tyranny.