Ice Ghosts: The Epic Hunt for the Lost Franklin Expedition
By Paul Watson
McClelland & Stewart,
384 pages, $34.95
Minds of Winter
By Ed O'Loughlin
House of Anansi,
481 pages, $22.95
The headline is telegraphic: "How quest for Northwest Passage turned into search for tragic hero." It surfaced recently in The Scotsman, which was launching its 200th-anniversary celebration with a series of "greatest stories ever told over the last two centuries."
Since the 16th century, so the story goes, explorers had been searching for a northern sea route to connect the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. In the mid-1800s, after Sir John Franklin disappeared into the Arctic with two Royal Navy ships and 128 men, the quest for that navigable Northwest Passage developed a double focus. Now, explorers sought to discover both the final link in the Passage and the fate of the lost Franklin expedition.
But already, with the word "discover," we have sailed into contention and controversy. I have long argued that during a single 1854 expedition, with the help of the Inuit, explorer John Rae solved both great 19th-century mysteries. Having identified Rae Strait as the missing link in the Passage, he reported, correctly, that the Franklin expedition had ended in disaster, with some sailors resorting to cannibalism.
To Rae's discoveries, scores of explorers, scientists and historians – among them Leopold McClintock, Charles Francis Hall and Frederick Schwatka – have added nuance, detail and clarification. Yet, at least one scholar suggests that "the gravitational pull of the Franklin disaster" distorts our understanding of exploration history. In a 2016 book called Writing Arctic Disaster: Authorship and Exploration, Adriana Craciun insists that John Franklin made only a minor contribution to Arctic discovery. And she questions the wisdom of celebrating "a failed British expedition, whose architects sought to demonstrate the superiority of British science over Inuit knowledge."
Craciun is probably right. And yet "Franklinistas" persist, driven variously by a yearning to discover some ultimate truth, by an ideological need to exonerate British imperialism or by a hidden agenda, as Craciun suspects, to open the Arctic to the oil industry. Certain it is that the Canadian discoveries of Franklin's two long-lost ships – Erebus in 2014, and Terror in 2016 – have triggered a tsunami of Franklin-related books. Among them, we find Franklin's Lost Ship: The Historic Discovery of HMS Erebus; Finding Franklin: The Untold Story of a 165-Year Search; and Sir John Franklin's Erebus and Terror Expedition: Lost and Found (coming in July).
Caught up in this tidal wave, two new works establish high-watermarks. In narrative non-fiction, we have Paul Watson's Ice Ghosts: The Epic Hunt for the Lost Franklin Expedition. An award-winning journalist, Watson was on the search expedition that located Erebus, and subsequently broke the news of the finding of Terror. His new book is a splendid achievement.
In the first two-thirds, he delivers a lively rendition of the old familiar Franklin story – departure, disappearance, a decades-long search extending ever onward. He pays attention to Inuit place names, incorporates paranormal synchronicities, and brings key players to vivid life. The man can write. Yes, we hit a few glitches. The younger sibling of Eenoolooapik was not Ebierbing but Tookoolito. John Rae did in fact reach the Castor and Pollux River in 1854 before turning north. And the cook on the St. Roch expedition, Albert (Frenchy) Chartrand, died not in Gjoa Haven but in Pasley Bay on Boothia, where over his grave Henry Larsen built a cairn that stands even today. Small mistakes are inevitable in a work this size, and they don't come close to threatening the book's sweeping credibility.
The final third, highlighted by a sympathetic portrait of Inuk historian Louie Kamookak, contains much that will be new to most readers. It traces the evolution of underwater archeology in Canada, notes the singular contribution of David Woodman, and culminates in the discovery of the two ships. Along the way, Watson offers much to inspire debate. Some will remain unconvinced by the author's defence of those who, having located Terror, kept that achievement secret from their search partners for five valuable days. Others will dispute the notion that, if a few survivors did steer Erebus into a sheltered location, they somehow completed a Northwest Passage. Bottom line: Ice Ghosts is a notable contribution to the literature of polar exploration.
The same is true, in fiction, of Minds of Winter by Irish-Canadian author Ed O'Loughlin. Longlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, this hugely ambitious novel touches on the Franklin expedition, but ranges widely through time and space. Van Diemen's Land, 1941; Lancaster Sound, 1848; King William Island, 1903; Ross Island, Antarctica, 1911; The Korea-Manchuria Border, 1904; Edmonton, 1932; Lough Neagh, Northern Ireland, 1942. We enter the wintry minds of an equally diverse range of fictional characters drawn from real life, among them Sophia Cracroft, Joseph-Rene Bellot, Roald Amundsen, Ipiirviq/Ebierbing, Cecil Meares, Jack London and even the Mad Trapper.
The centrifugal forces at work here are tremendous. Against them, to hold the novel together, the author deploys the structure that worked so well for A.S. Byatt in her Booker Prize-winning Possession. A contemporary framing tale focuses on a man and a woman engaged in a dove-tailing historical quest. O'Loughlin's characters, Fay Morgan and Nelson Nilsson, meet in the town of Inuvik, NWT, on the Arctic coast, where they end up trying to ascertain how a unique Arnold 294 chronometer, supposedly lost with the 1845 Franklin expedition, turned up in Britain in 2009.
Where Byatt manages to integrate the historical quest into her framing tale, the chronometer is a MacGuffin that recedes into the shadows after launching the whirling narrative. Almost every chapter, except for those set in contemporary Inuvik, features a new set of characters in a different time and place. The challenge is formidable, both for the author – who displays a prodigious imagination in creating, from scratch, one stand-alone scene after another – and for the reader. Those not steeped in the history of polar exploration may find themselves floundering in the wintry wilds.
Ken McGoogan, author of four books about Arctic exploration, will publish a fifth in September: Dead Reckoning: The Untold Story of the Northwest Passage.