Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Recommended (Arctic) reading: Part One

The interest that Dan Simmons's The Terror has stirred up regarding the Franklin Expedition has prompted a handful of people to ask me to recommend some good non-fiction books about it, as they want to read some more. Herewith a few books that might be best saved for summer reading, to cool you down when the temperatures rise.


The keystone work in this field is still Canadian historian Pierre Berton's The Arctic Grail: The Quest for the North West Passage and the North Pole, 1818–1909 (Random House), which gives an excellent overview of the subject. The dates weren't chosen randomly: 1818 was the year in which Franklin made his first foray into the north, and 1909 saw not one but two men claiming to be the first to reach the North Pole. The Franklin Expedition and the expeditions which went in search of it are covered extensively. Berton wasn't Canada's best known, and most popular, historian without good reason: The Arctic Grail is, like all his works, immensely readable, although an overview like this can only give a taste of some of the larger-than life personalities who were drawn to the Arctic.


Two books cited by Simmons in his acknowledgements for The Terror are both excellent overviews of the Franklin Expedition in particular. Owen Beattie and John Geiger's Frozen in Time: The Fate of the Franklin Expedition (Bloomsbury/Graystone) details the exhumation, in 1984 and 1986, of three Franklin Expedition sailors who died early on in the voyage and were buried on remote Beechey Island. The sailors' bodies were remarkably well preserved, enabling Beattie and his team to carry out autopsies and analyses which showed far higher levels of lead in the sailors than is considered healthy, and gave rise to the theory—believed by some, debunked by others—that the lead used in the tins of food which the expedition relied on was one of the main causes of the tragedy. Be sure to get the revised edition, which includes an interesting foreword by Margaret Atwood, who discusses the influence that the Beattie expedition had on some of her own fiction.

Scott Cookman's Ice Blink: The Tragic Fate of Sir John Franklin's Lost Polar Expedition (Wiley) also fingers the tinned food as a culprit, but posits that it was botulism, not lead, which contaminated the food. Tinned food was an innovation in 1845, and many felt that it would alleviate that most dreaded of sailors' diseases, scurvy; but the processes necessary to ensure that the food was thoroughly cooked prior to the tins being sealed were not always in place, and the problem was compounded by the food freezing and then thawing over the course of the voyage, and not being heated properly prior to being consumed. The suspicion that the tinned food had something to do with the tragedy is borne out by the fact that the officers—who ate more of the tinned food (which was considered a delicacy) than the common seamen—suffered a disproportionate number of losses early in the expedition.

Ken McGoogan's Lady Franklin's Revenge: A True Story of Ambition, Obsession and the Remaking of Arctic History (HarperCollins) is a superb look at a remarkable woman, to whom the adjective 'indomitable' is applied with monotonous (but accurate) regularity. She was a woman who was far ahead of her time, and undoubtedly the driving force in the Franklin household: McGoogan paints a convincing portrait of a woman who lived vicariously through her husband, using his various appointments as a way to see and do things that would otherwise have been denied her. The volume focuses more on Lady Franklin than on her husband, and thus the Franklin Expedition is seen through the eyes of the woman who was left behind, and whose indomitable will sent governments scrambling to send expeditions in search of Franklin and his men. Ironically, more men were lost searching for Franklin than were lost on the expedition itself; their stories are as fascinating, and as fraught with tragedy, as Franklin's own, and will be the subject of another post.


George said...

About to dive into The Terror. The Arctic and Antarctic have always been great places for terror to evolve.

As to real life, Shackleton's story is probably the most insanely incredible.

Scott's journal is pretty revealing, although it took me longer to get through it than he spent on his journey.

A nice eclectic blog. Thanks.

George Cleveland

Barbara Roden said...

Hi George,

Thanks for the comments. I agree that Shackleton's story is perhaps the most incredible tale of Arctic or Antarctic voyages; it was as much a disaster as many others (the Franklin, Hall, Kane, and Greeley expeditions in the north, the Mawson and Scott expeditions in the south), but what makes it so amazing is that Shackleton got everyone out alive, through sheer force of will if nothing else. One gets the feeling, reading about Shackleton, that there was simply no way on God's earth he was going to lose anyone, no matter what it took; if there had been someone like Shackleton on the other expeditions then one gets the feeling they wouldn't have ended so tragically.