Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Review of Arctic Books Read in 2010

A little bit late for an annual review of the Arctic books I read in 2011, but better late than never.

This is obviously not a summary of books published in 2010 or of all of my reading last year, but only those Arctic-related and Franklin-related books that I read this past year, together with my feeble attempt at a short review for your entertainment.

1. Farley Mowat, The Snow Walker (1975)

I had not read this book and only dimly recollected its existence as I pulled it off the shelf at our family cottage in Nova Scotia. I was looking for something to read from the "old books" shelf, being quite unattracted to the many titles we had carted halfway across the country from Toronto. It had been over a decade since I had last read any Mowat and I'm glad I picked up this one. The historian in you will gag at his "never letting facts get in the way of the truth" approach to writing/reporting, but he does melt the snowdrift away from the exposed rock of the real story. And Mowat can tell a good story. A thoroughly enjoyable read. What better to read in mid-summer's heat? (You could also choose watch the movie that is based upon one of the stories in the book.)

2. Ken McGoogan, Fatal Passage: The Story of John Rae, The Arctic Hero Time Forgot (2003)

McGoogan's Lady Franklin's Revenge was not the first Franklin book I read but it was the northern lights of my early polar reading and lit up my interest in the story of the lost Franklin Expedition. Somewhat ironic to read this one first and then his earlier John Rae biography (the first book in McGoogan’s “Fatal Passage Quartet”) There is something to be learned about the author in doing so for I think it is readily apparent how much of Lady Franklin's story and life and personality he learned, and dislike he had to set aside. And dislike is perhaps a mild phrase for the impression he leaves of her in Fatal Passage for what she did to Rae. But the book is about Rae, who truly was a great, heroic explorer that time forgot. McGoogan chronicles the vast amount of territory that Rae charted - no one had charted nearly as much territory and no non-Inuit had travelled as much by foot - including as McGoogan puts it, the final link in the fabled (if somewhat fictional) “North West Passage”.

McGoogan writes history, particularly historical biography, in the way I like to read it: a strong and clear narrative voice and point of view, but chock full of primary sources that anchor it, giving it weight, making it convincing. Fatal Passage is not nearly as polished as Lady Franklin's Revenge, nor does it dig or divulge as much directly from Rae's own writing as with his later biography and much of McGoogan's personal opinion seems to come out a bit too much, but it is a compelling read, great storytelling and even a good bit of suspense and drama to keep you engaged. For the Arctic and the Franklin enthusiast, this is definitely on the must read list.

3. Martin Beardsley, Deadly Winter: The Life of Sir John Franklin (2002)

This is not a book about "the life" of Sir John Franklin despite the title. This is a few hundred pages of a respondent's factum and statement of defence in some perceived case of Historical Impression vs Sir John Franklin. There are worthwhile segments in the book, but far too many cringeworthy positions in trying to set the Franklin record straight, the way Beardsley thinks it should be written, including very poorly argued and weakly supported claim, among other less kind descriptions I could make (more on this below).

Too many times in the book, it feels a lot like being in a room where someone is in a tense, impatient, at times heated argument with someone on the telephone, occasionally looking over at you and dismissively rolling his eyes. You are only getting one side of the argument here and Beardsley is so trivializing of opposing views that it is hard to even figure out what the other argument may be unless you are well versed in Franklin historiography. For example, despite accepted history supported by an abundance, even overwhelming, evidence from science and Inuit witness testimony, Beardsley confidently asserts that the English would never have "been driven to the last dread alternative", as Rae put it, but that it is more likely that they were attacked by Inuit (as the knife cuts in the bone reported by Beattie were more likely knife wounds from Inuit slaughter!) and that stories of cannibalism are more likely stories of cannibalism by Inuit - the “eaters of raw flesh”. I don't have a problem with authors challenging "accepted" history. In fact, that is what keeps the past vital and alive. Just look at Woodman's work with Inuit testimony. But if the weight of authority is against you, it is incumbent on you to thoroughly examine the details of the challenged argument and to present a comprehensive defense of your own.

Beardsley's argument is wanting, essentially offering up the old circular reasoning that sailors in the British Navy could never have eaten each other because... they were sailors in the British Navy. Well doesn't that just settle it all then! Compare again to Woodman who challenges pretty much the entire timeline and much of the inherited history by exploring in quite minute detail accepted wisdom with an exhaustive chronicling of native testimony, but also the history of the history, what was repeated and what was original. Agree with his conclusions or not, that is how you research and write history.

I think a Franklin scholar probably ought to read this book, but that is the best I can say about it.

4. Andrew Lambert, The Gates of Hell: Sir John Franklin's Tragic Quest for the North West Passage (2009)

Much of what Deadly Winter isn't, Gates of Hell is. Lambert also sets out to re-cast the story and history of Sir John Franklin, but as a story about a scientist who happens to explore the world. More than that, Franklin's geographical explorations were the extension, not of a nationalistic fervour to discover the Northwest Passage, but to advance science and magnetic science in particular. Lambert is more interested in articulating that view than countering accepted views and so he fills in an important gap in our understanding of Sir John Franklin, namely what motivated him personally. Lambert offers ample supporting evidence to rightfully balance out a listing in the ship of history so we can see its full hull.

Lambert's text suffers from two smaller historiographical dilemmas. First, with the modern image of Franklin as a failed explorer, even a buffoon, pursuing an irrational national dream that suffered from a ridiculous sense of imperial bigotry, Lambert had quite the large sea to cross to convince us differently. This he accomplishes. At least for me with overwhelming and deep and convincing research on Franklin and magnetism. But he quite unsurprisingly is too often forced to defend this new impression of Franklin too strongly and to dismiss or ignore other aspects of the existing Franklin lore that might still be true. Just because, for example, science and magnetism played a much more significant role than historians normally credit, does not mean that nationalism and imperial bigotry did not play as or more significant a role. As with space exploration, science drove the detailed planning and objectives, but there would have been no human in space if not for national ambition and fervour and international politics.

Second, without some fairly deep background knowledge of Franklin and his many expeditions, it would be somewhat difficult to follow the depths of Lambert's arguments. He assumes a lot of the reader. That can be fine - nothing wrong with targeting a more learned reader - but in assuming so much, while trying to convince us much of the inherited view is wrong, it is sometimes hard to sail along with him and his arguments. Plus it leaves the sense that he has hastened over facts that are clash too much with his thesis. The endless detail of the scientific community and personalities, and how important science was to them is for me endlessly fascinating. If I had more knowledge of the history of the science, I'd be better able to weigh Lambert's views; but as it is, I know too much that doesn't seem to fit. Which is really unfortunate because I thoroughly enjoyed this book and think it is a critical addition that fills a very significant hole in the historical literature, in regards to both the re-casting of Franklin and the importance of scientific discovery at least on a par with geographical discovery.

With these two Franklin biographies now written, and Franklin's image now less superficial and caricature, there is a real opportunity for some historian to write a complete history of the man, free from the confines of having to attack an existing image or defend a contrary view. The historiography is ready for it. Something along the lines of what McGoogan has done with Rae and Lady Franklin, filling in the huge gaps in their backstory, before the events with which we are all familiar, and bringing them back to us in three dimensions. The history for its own sake, freed from the chains of prior interpretation and personal agenda. Something along the lines of what William Battersby does in James Fitzjames: The Mystery Man of the Franklin Polar Expedition .

5. William Battersby, James Fitzjames: The Mystery Man of the Franklin Polar Expedition (2010)

James Fitzjames is a mystery despite inherited assumptions about him. And the tale of third in command on the Franklin expedition by William Battersby explores that mystery with exquisite detail and research. This is a remarkable book, especially for a first time book writer. It is again the kind of history I like to read: steeped in detail and direct quoting from primary sources, but never to the extent of weakening the narrative, the storytelling that drives non-academic scholarship. The sense of the love and passion for careful, comprehensive historical research emanates from every chapter. You can just imagine the number of dead ends Battersby traveled and ghosts chased before uncovering this untold and surprising tale. While the sense from Beardsley and Lambert is of writers wanting to "fix" a history they considered flawed, Battersby comes across more as an explorer, out to find out what he can about this intriguing figure and being driven on by each new revelation. Fitzjames is remade, the image of a well-to-do privileged and favoured son of the navy inappropriately added to the expedition in a leading role, convincingly re-cast as a bastard child with talents, a hard ride up the ranks and who held many secrets in his closet, of his own as well as, quite importantly, those belonging to important others.

As a first book, it is naturally not without its flaws, but the number of "new finds" from Battersby is really quite remarkable. At times, it is almost like a detective novel, uncovering hidden mystery after hidden mystery - his parentage, his “sister” and “brother”, the Euphrates expedition, the Chinese wars, the mysteriously and frequently occurring “X” in his journals... I'll leave the "reveal" to my reader's own readings, but it is enough to make my recommendation of this text strong, if being the only biography of Fitzjames wasn't enough to put this book on your reading list.

6. Dan Simmons, The Terror (2007)

I also read two Franklin related novels in 2010:The Terror by Dan Simmons and the English translation of the Governor General's Award winning On The Proper Use of Stars by Dominique Fortier.

I actually enjoyed, really enjoyed, the Simmons book. Until about two thirds of the way through, when it suddenly transitions from a vividly descriptive historical fiction to a supernatural horror novel. In a way I was relieved: throughout I kept thinking that Simmons was writing the Franklin novel that in my crazy dreaming I think I would want to write, a detailed historical fiction that brings the history alive. That he does very well, but then the story goes sideways and I understood why so many Franklin scholars disparage it. Ah well.

6. Dominique Fortier, On The Proper Use of Stars (2008; translated 2010)

Fortier on the other hand does not just offer up some fictionalized recounting of the Franklin expedition, but elevates the history higher. On The Proper Use of Stars is very well researched, but Fortier keeps history tightly reigned in to serve its literary ambitions. This is more literary history than historical fiction. And the prose and story so graceful and absorbing that it was rare that I could ever be fussed or picky about the few historical anomalies (I don’t even want to call them errors and risk diminishing the novel; besides, only someone immersed in Franklin lore would notice). Fortier won the Governor General's Medal for French Literature in 2008 and was elegantly translated into English by Sheila Fischman.


I don't read Arctic or Franklin history exclusively at all, but that was what absorbed me in 2010.

Next, I'll post my reading ambitions for 2011. Feel free to make recommendations.


Russell Potter said...

Ted, excellent reviews all 'round! I agree with your outlook on nearly every one of these books; your analysis of Beardsley is particularly acute. Ever thought about writing for the Arctic Book Review? The most I can promise you is a free book, but we'd certainly be glad to have you aboard.

Ted Betts said...


Thank you ever so much for your comment. I can't tell you how excited I am to receive it. And the invitation.

I would be delighted to pitch in on Arctic Book Review. My blog had been a bit dormant last year and I plan to make more regular use of it, including with mini book reviews, so this will fit in well.

Do you have a regular schedule or is just publishing reviews as the books come out?

Let me know how I can help out. I happen to have a few new/newish Arctic related books on my shelf which haven't been reviewed I don't think (including Amy Sackville's The Still Point novel). But I'm always interested in free books!!