Friday, June 10, 2011

Canadian Bookshelf - Canadian Books on Franklin

[I was recently honoured to be asked to submit a list of Canadian books on Franklin to the Canadian Bookshelf, a great new blog and website and must read for any Canadian bibliophile, for their launch on June 7, 2011. The following is the list I submitted, which can be found here. Unfortunately, the site does not support hyperlinks, so for now you, the readers of Franklin's Ghost, get the to enjoy the exclusive privilege of reading the post here with the re-inserted hyperlinks. My original post was also edited a little bit with the introduction and conclusion merged to work with their "list" formatting.

Unfortunately, they excluded Frozen in Time by Owen Beattie and John Geiger from the posting as the book is out of print (a travesty in its own right) and they aren't set up for out of print books. Something about the way the information loads up directly from their publishers. It will be added eventually once they figure a workaround.

Obviously, the list is necessarily very limited by being restricted to Canadian books, as any more complete list of Franklin books would show. But there are two interesting observations I would make about the list.

First, the early writing that renewed and reinvigoured interest in the Franklin expedition and inspired later generations of writers were Canadians. Most notably, Owen Beatie and John Geiger's Frozen Time and Pierre Berton's Arctic Grail. Many fine non-Canadian writers have written about Franklin, of course, both before and after the mid-1980s, but those two (especially Beattie/Geiger) opened up new channels of study and interest. And the late 1980s and early 1990s witnessed a relative flurry of Franklin-related writing insprired by those early writers. From Margaret Atwood and Mordecai Richler in fiction and cultural studies to Woodman in Inuit and historical studies.

Second, while Ken McGoogan has persisted in carrying the flag in the North, most recent writing on the Franklin expedition has been by , to a greater extent, British, and, to a lesser extent, Americans. Just like with the original searches, I guess. And this research has been deep and getting deeper. Somewhat to do no doubt with the volume of papers and artifacts actually in the UK, most especially the Scott Polar Research Institute, with books of Crozer by Smith and Fitzjames by Battersby, but also a number of British historians unsatisfied with the overall modern perception of Sir John Franklin, his expedition and all of the British Navy's explorations of the north (and elsewhere). Books like Beardsley, Cookman, Lambert, for example.

Opportunities abound for some enterprising Canadian writer.]

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Sir John Franklin set out from Greenhithe, England, on the morning of May 19, 1845to discover the Northwest Passage. He and his 129 member crew were never seen again. While bones and artifacts, and even graves, have been found, their ships have never been found and the mystery of their disappearance has endured for 150 years. With the discovery of the sunken HMS Investigator and the unexpected possible finding of the last resting place of the Franklin crew last year, and multiple new expeditions in search of answers every year, the Franklin story not only refuses to fade away, but grows yearly.

The resurgent interest in the mysteries of the Franklin expedition in the last 25 years was initiated by, and continues to be spurred on by, Canadian writers. Here's a few of them.

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The Arctic Grail: The Quest for the Northwest Passage and the North Pole, 1818-1909 by Pierre Berton (1988)

If you were to pick one book to start with, it really has to be The Arctic Grail, the classic book by the iconic Canadian writer and historian Pierre Berton. Following shortly on the heals of Owen Beattie’s foresic discoveries (see below), and no doubt inspired by them, it is an excellent survey of arctic exploration and the central role the Franklin Expedition and, more importantly, the decades plus search for Franklin had in mapping and exploring the Arctic.

Frozen in Time: Unlocking the Secrets of the Franklin Expedition by Owen Beattie and John Geiger (1987 with a good updated edition in 2004)

The groundbreaking archeological work of Owen Beattie almost single-handedly re-opened research and interest into the Franklin expedition. Beattie's first expedition explored King William Island, where nearly 150 years earlier Franklin's men abandoned their ships and supposedly started their long "death march" along the western coast. Strewn along the coast were the bones of dozens of European men from the mid-nineteenth century. Using modern day forensic analysis on the bones back at the University of Alberta, Beattie made two startling discoveries. The first confirmed what was already generally known: that the expedition survivors had indeed "been driven to the last dread alternative", cannibalism. But it was the second discovery that surprised: bone samples revealed extremely high and dangerous levels of lead. Frozen In Time then documents two subsequent trips to Beechey Island in which the bodies of the 3 found sailors were exhumed. The cadavers, frozen in the permafrost for a century and a half, confirmed the earlier results: the Franklin sailors were suffering from lead poisoning to such a degree that it was a contributing factor to their demise. The 2004 paperback edition updates their research to subsequent theories.

Unravelling the Franklin Mystery: Inuit Testimony by David C. Woodman (1992)

Historian David C. Woodman is one of the first modern writers to recognise the profound importance, accuracy and reliability of Inuit oral history and to analyse it in depth. He concludes from his investigations, among other startling discoveries, that the Inuit probably did visit Franklin's ships while the crew was still on board, that there were some Inuit who actually saw the sinking of one of the ships and that the crew, or at least some of them, may have lived for years longer than supposed. This is a book for the real Franklinophile. Consider also Woodman's harder-to-find follow-up Strangers Among Us (1995).

Fatal Passage: The True Story of John Rae, the Arctic Hero Time Forgot by Ken McGoogan (2002)

No reading list of Franklin history or of northern Canadian exploration would be complete without at least a few books from historian Ken McGoogan. Two of McGoogan’s “Fatal Passage Quartet” related directly to the lost Franklin expedition. Hudson Bay Company chief explorer John Rae charted more of Canada’s northern coastline on foot than possibly any other. It was Rae who not only uncovered the true story of Franklin – the location of the disaster and cannibalism (the telling of which doomed his career and reputation) – but also, according to the author was the true discoverer of the Northwest Passage and received £10,000 for it. In Fatal Passage, McGoogan tries to re-cast Rae into his rightful place in history.

Lady Franklin's Revenge: A True Story of Ambition, Obsession and the Remaking of Arctic History by Ken McGoogan (2005)

The story about Sir John Franklin cannot be fully understood without knowing about his ambitious, determined, obstinate and opinionated wife, Lady Jane Franklin. But for her efforts to mount and continue the search for her husband, there would have been no search for Franklin and no mapping of millions of square kilometers in the north. More than that, in Lady Franklin's Revenge, McGoogan brings to vivid life Lady Franklin and her husband Sir John, and the events that led to his command of the fateful expedition.

De Bon Usage des Etoiles [On The Proper Use of Stars] by Dominique Fortier (2008; translated to English in 2010)

The lost Franklin expedition has inspired not only serious research and study by non-fiction writers, but a library of fiction as well. The science and history inspired a significant portion of Mordecai Richler’s Solomon Gursky Was Here (1990), Margaret Atwood’s short story “The Age of Lead” (1989) from Wilderness Tips (as indicated by the title, directly from Beattie, in fact) and more recently the Helen Humphreys short story “Franklin’s Library” (2005) and the mystery/detective novel by the late, prize winning Canadian author Dennis Richard Murphy in Darkness at the Stroke of Noon (2008). Most recently, Dominque Fortier’s captivating and elegant historical fiction, On The Proper Use of Stars, which won the Governor General’s Medal in 2008 and was beautifully translated in 2010 (by Sheila Fischman) shows us the magneticism of this slowly unraveling mystery.

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In a way, the historical and scientific writing, and the modern fiction it has inspired, is only catching up to generations of writing on Franklin by artists and folklorists and dramatists and poets. As Margaret Atwood noted in her 1995 book, Strange Things: The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature, though, the Franklin mystery has been told and re-told so many times that it has created a fundamental Canadian myth.

Ted Betts is a Canadian lawyer and historian who occasionally writes at the Franklin's Ghost blog. If this short list has in any way piqued your interest, he has compiled an essentials reading list on Franklin history.

Originally posted at Canadian Bookshelf.

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