Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Cambridge Library Collection: Arctic Classics

Cambridge Library Collection

Various titles, $37.99 - $75

Cambridge University Press


Reviewed by Russell A. Potter



It's not often that we review multiple titles in a single notice -- but this case is exceptional. There's no other single publisher who offers such a range of classic expedition narratives, and it would seem unfair to single out any one of these many volumes. Chosen in consultation with the Scott Polar Research Institute, they represent the widest array of classic Arctic book currently in print and available from any publisher I know. And, though it's quite true that the majority of them can be read for free online via Google Books or archive.org, there's something about these particular books -- and these particular reprints -- that makes obtaining them as actual, physical books a particular value.

Over past decades, a number of publishers have reprinted books such as these -- classics in their field which have long gone out of print -- and sold them, primarily to the library market. Many of these books were "blowbacks" -- printed from microfilm -- and sometimes left something to be desired, as when large-format books were reprinted in a smaller trim size, resulting in painfully small print. Such troubles also plague online books, which in many cases replicate the errors of careless scanning or filming -- maps photographed folded, bent pages obscuring text, foxing, and missing pages. As someone whose first job out of college was editing microfilm collections for Research Publications (now Primary Source Media), I appreciate that these things do happen -- but when they're not caught, the value of the copy declines significantly.

And this, to my mind, is the best thing about these Cambridge reprints. They're freshly scanned from originals held by Cambridge libraries, and extra care is taken that each page is faithfully reproduced. Equally importantly, they're generally done in the same trim size as the originals, which gives them a welcome readability -- and heft -- which others lack. There's something truly extraordinary, I've discovered, about reading volumes such as Charles Francis Hall's narrative of his second Arctic expedition, with all of the in-line illustrations and text at full size -- it feels just as good as reading the original (and far more convenient, as copies in good shape are scarce, and generally don't circulate outside libraries).

The Press's blog recently featured a variety of books by or relating to Sir John Franklin, some of which, such as Dr. King's, are scarce indeed, and all of which look to be handsomely presented. There are some other titles, too, that this list (inadvertently, I'm sure) missed: the Memoirs of Lieutenant Joseph René Bellot, the Memorial Sketch of the Life of John Irving, and Sir John Richardson's Arctic Searching Expedition, each of which offers a unique primary-source glimpse of the pathos and curiosity which surrounded the search for Franklin. Amercian Arctic figures are not neglected -- Isaac I. Hayes's The Open Polar Sea is available, and Dr. Elisha Kent Kane's Grinnell narratives are soon to be released. It fires the imagination to think of the reference library one could amass at home, without the cost and anxiety of finding original editions.

These volumes, I should note, are not inexpensive -- the prices, in general, are geared to the library market -- but given their quality, are eminently reasonable. Those who are willing to do business with amazon.com will find that most are available there at a discount. According the the publishers, they've found that a surprising proportion of recent sales have been to individuals, and I'm sure that's a trend that will continue. For all the vaunted revolution of electronic books, there are some -- these among them -- which really can't be appreciated if they don't take up some space on a shelf, and in one's hands.

UPDATE: I've since found this link to the complete Polar/Arctic list.

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Dream of the North

The Dream of the North: A Cultural History to 1920

by Peter Fjågesund

Rodopi, 2014, $175

Reviewed by Russell A. Potter


Every few years, a book comes out which offers -- or purports to offer -- a sweeping overview of the history of Arctic exploration and its historical significance. Most, however, take the explorers' accounts at face value, and are essentially elegant coffee-table books for armchair enthusiasts. When I first saw the title of this book, though encouraged by the subtitle "a cultural history," I was a bit skeptical -- how could any book, especially one just over five hundred and fifty pages in length, cover such a period, and cover it well?

Peter Fjågesund manages this feat, and several others along the way: unlike other recent cultural histories, which -- rejecting the old grand narratives -- have cobbled together in their place a rather lumpy "new North" out of Scandinavian mythology, wandering antiquarians, and stuffed polar bears, Fjågesund is not afraid of large-scale synthesis and broad intellectual history. One may disagree with his analysis, but his positing of the northward turn as a specifically Protestant, individualist, vernacular movement is a compelling one, and throws sparks of new insight even as it startles old orthodoxies.

Of course, tracing the idea of "North" back through ancient times involves a certain amount of distortion -- for Herodotus, the "North," where he placed the anthropophagai, was somewhere in the Balkans;  for the Romans, the North was the land east of the Rhine and north of the Danube, the realms of the Germani. And yet, both the Greeks and the Romans had preserved some accounts of lands still further north, so far as to seem almost mythical; there the water was as thick as soup, and the sun did not set for days on end, a land they called Ultima Thule. It was, perhaps, this slow-advancing line between myth and geography that the idea of "North" named, and it's this strange interzone whose history Fjågesund outlines.

The Middle Ages form another turning point; as Fjågesund notes, the sweep of the Black Death hit particularly hard in northern Europe, leaving some tribes far more isolated than they had been before. And, although unrelated, the depopulation and eventual extinction of the Greenland colonies, was widely recounted throughout Europe, and formed perhaps the first instance of the great myth of Arctic disappearance, one which carried on into legends from those of Sir Hugh Willoughby to Sir John Franklin and beyond.

But this is just part of the larger narrative Fjågesund wants to tell. Unlike most previous historians of the Arctic fascination, he takes political elements into full account, and indeed demonstrates that they were integral from the beginning. This does a good deal to explain England's unusual prominence; as far back as Frobisher, geopolitical latitudes of influence were already divided into "Northern" (England and northern Europe) and "Southern" (Mediterranean/Catholic Europe) spheres. As Dionyse Settle, Frobisher's chronicler, put it,
Spaine is situated much more neere the Tropike of Cancer, then other Christian countries be : wherby, the Spaniards are better able to tolerate Phoebus burning beames, then others whiche are more Septentrional.  Wherfore, I suppose them the most apte men for the inioying of the habitation of the West Indies : and especially so much, as it is vexed with continual heate, that is more agreeable to their temperature.
Of course, Settle's argument didn't prevent England, and later Great Britain, from establishing colonies in tropical regions, but it did give the island nation a seemingly natural affiliation with the North, albeit one it would in theory share with Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, among others.

Indeed, in this sense, the work of exploring and colonizing the North, because so large a portion of it took place in more recent times -- when cultural nation-states were more firmly established -- offers an unique window into the evolution of nationalism itself. And, although it is admittedly painted with wide brush-strokes, it also connects this political history to a cultural division, with struggle, sacrifice, austerity, and interiority on the Northern/Protestant side, and leisure, abundance, profligacy, and sensuality on the Southern/Catholic side. It's easy, of course, to show this to be a false dichotomy, but it has proven to be a remarkably durable one all the same.

As Fjågesund's narrative draws nearer to the "heroic age" of Arctic exploration, it tacks a bit closer to the usual historical winds, but despite this still manages to cast this period in a fresh light. It would be impossible to summarize his entire argument; I can only urge anyone in search of a bolder and more historically sweeping view of the idea of the "North" to read this book. At the same time, I would urge the publishers to make it available to the public, perhaps in paperback or e-book form, at a price more within the usual bounds of a trade publication; its true value will only be realized if it reaches a far wider audience. It deserves to do so.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Stray Leaves from the Arctic

In 1852, the indefatigable Sherard Osborn -- a prolific if not always pleasant collaborator and author -- published his Stray Leaves from an Arctic Journal. The stray leaves of this review, however, are of a quite different and more visually engaging variety: a chapbook and a small volume of illustrated cards inspired by words in in the Greenlandic Inuit dialect. Both share slight dimensions and lightness of weight; they seem as though they might almost have arrived at our doorstep via message balloons like those dispatched in 1851 in the search for Sir John Franklin, or perhaps fallen out onto our desk as we opened some more ponderous tome of Arctic journeys. We can only express our delight that they have.

The first is Nancy Campbell's How to Say 'I Love You' in Greenlandic, a miniaturized version of her fine press art book of the same name. Campbell, who was a writer in residence at the Upernavik Museum in 2010, is presently the holder of the Lady Margaret Hall Visual and Performing Arts Residency at Oxford. As a printmaker and bookmaker, Campbell deftly deploys her artistry and design to create books that are not merely things of beauty, but which preserve and embody the languages, cultures, and wildlife of the Arctic regions. The change in size of this edition has a remarkable effect; though most of us imagine the Arctic as vast and panoramic, now here it is in our very hands: small, portable, vernacular. And, like the Kalaallisut language itself, it is vulnerable, beautiful, and agglomerative -- as a single word can mean a whole sentence, a single image encompasses the color and form of one of the Earth's most remote yet lovely landscapes. The cards come wrapped in a pale blue paper liner with a white band -- one could conceivably send them as postcards, though here at the ABR, we plan to keep them together, picking them up at times to let them cascade from hand to hand, or perhaps leaning them on a shelf, with a different card facing outwards each day.


Today's word is orsualerpaa: she pours oil on water so that it becomes calm, then she can see what lies in the depths.

The second of these volumes, one of the "Occasional Nuggets" series issued right here in town by the Special Collections staff at the Providence Public Library, is entitled On the Ice: Two Stories from the Arctic. Each issue features items of interest from within their holdings, and this one has two. The first, the journal of one Nicholas Bailey, who shipped aboard the whaler Harlequin in 1768, is a relatively conventional document of its kind; the document of far greater interest is the second one. It's the journal of Roderick R. Schneider, one of the less-well-known members of the infamous Greely Expedition to Lady Franklin Bay on Ellesmere Island. Led by Adolphus Washington Greely, it set a new record for furthest north in 1881, and gathered a valuable trove of meteorological and magnetic information; these accomplishments might have made it a beacon for other polar explorers, had it not been for what followed. Following orders, Greely abandoned his northern camp at Fort Conger and retreated south, unaware that the promised caches of supplies had never been made at his destination. He and his men endured horrific hardships that reduced his original party from twenty-one men to a mere six, with dissension, starvation, and cannibalism in the mix.

Schneider was a mere enlisted man, and was chiefly known during the expedition for his skill in handling the sled dogs, a skill with which none of the party had any previous acquaintance. And yet, in the party's final struggle for survival, Schneider (along with others) was caught stealing food and rum, for which he was sternly reprimanded by Greely. He managed to survive, against all odds, and was the last to succumb, dying only four days before the survivors were finally rescued. His diary was transcribed by a member of the rescue party -- which was fortunate, as the original later went missing and was entirely lost, save for a few leaves, on a Mississippi steamboat aboard which the purloiner had brought them. It is this transcript which survives at the Library.

Both the Bailey and Schneider documents are described at length, illustrated with full-color scans of some of the more interesting leaves of their originals. They bring, each in their way, the material history of Arctic journeys, and make quite a "nugget" in combination.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Graves of Ice

Graves of Ice: The Lost Franklin Expedition

By John Wilson

Scholastic Canada, CDN$ 14.99
Ages 9-12

Reviewed by Kristina Gehrmann


In Graves of Ice, author John Wilson tells the story of Franklin’s Lost Expedition as part of the I am Canada series, a collection of stories about adventure and exploration geared toward a pre-teen audience. He has explored the same theme previously in the novel North with Franklin: The Lost Journals of James Fitzjames; and in the young-adult book Across Frozen Seas. A biography of Sir John Franklin - Traveller on Undiscovered Seas is also part of his repertoire of many historical books and novels.

 The story is told from the viewpoint of one of the expedition's boys. Eighteen-year-old George Chambers can read and write, works as a clerk, and thanks to his father’s connections manages to get a spot aboard HMS Erebus, one of the ships to sail for the Arctic on Sir John Franklin’s much-awaited expedition. They are to leave England in May of 1845 to find and complete a Northwest-Passage through the Arctic, building on the achievement of former explorers. The general consensus is that there is merely a small part of the Passage yet to be discovered, that it is theirs for the taking, and that with the aid of modern technology it will now be claimed once and for all.

But a year or so before, our protagonist meets another boy: Davy, a half-orphan, who earns a modest living muck-raking in the mud. Davy invites George on a “treasure hunt” in the churchyard at night, and George, eager for adventure, goes along. It is in the following scene that the stark contrast between the two boys’ backgrounds and upbringing becomes most apparent. The reader notices that Davy intends to steal a corpse from the grave; but to George in all his stunning naïveté this doesn’t occur – indeed, he asks upon digging up the coffin, surprised, “The treasure’s in the coffin?”

Only then does he realize what they’re about to do. Horrified, he wants to get away, but Davy’s companion, a grave robber named Jim, gets ready to kill George, but then Davy steps in and stabs Jim to death, saving George’s life. The latter is now even more shocked to know what his new acquaintance is capable of, and wants nothing more to do with him and his life of crime.

In the next year, George has almost forgotten this scary episode when, to his horror, he finds the same grave-robbing street urchin serving alongside him as a cabin boy on HMS Erebus. Although they work on the same tasks, try to put their awkward start behind them and get along with each other, the differences in their personalities create conflict throughout the book. Davy is a tough kid who grew up in a harsh dog-eat-dog world, not always hiding his deep-seated suspicion of the aloof officers (“toffs”), while George, the well-mannered, slightly naïve young gentleman gets along well with Commander Fitzjames whom he’s been assigned to, shares the officers’ optimism about the expedition’s goals, and trusts them to make the right decisions for the good of all.

The journey starts off well enough. George and Davy have plenty of work to do, attending to the officers, assisting the cook, and learning to climb the rigging. They also make friends with fellow sailors. One of these, a Royal Marine named William Braine, will already be familiar to some readers as one of the expedition’s famous ice mummies exhumed in 1986.

As this book is intended for younger readers, it's not as long and descriptive as one might expect from a novel. Certain events are merely mentioned or implied and not shown, such as incidents of cannibalism that have occurred among Franklin’s men in the Arctic. A Franklin enthusiast might also feel that the officers’ characters are too roughly outlined and have not been done justice, but Crozier and Co. are not the focus of this book. The protagonists’ characterization is splendid. The often-overlooked ships’ boys David and George become more than mere names on the muster rolls, and one finds it easy to believe that this is how their real namesakes might have been.

And although the story is very compact the author has included many historically relevant and well-researched details: the provisioning and equipment of Her Majesty’s ships Erebus and Terror, scientific work and everyday routine aboard; and – most curiously – Commander Fitzjames’ not-so-glamorous background, a mystery that was uncovered only very recently and may, so I hope, inspire new characterizations of him in future works of fiction.

Once Erebus and Terror are beset in ancient ice off King William Island in September of 1846, the mortality rate on Franklin’s expedition rises. And contrary to the expectation, the ice seems to have no intention of releasing them even in the following summer. In April 1848, a group of 105 survivors, weakened by cold and sickness, know that they have no choice but to abandon the ships at least for a season’s hunting, and even then their prospects are grim: They are too numerous to shoot enough game to keep the dreaded scurvy at bay.

So much for the relatively few facts that are known. To these, the author adds several more fictional puzzle parts to show how the situation could have unfolded. For example, a group of Inuit visit the beset ships and their crews – and George tries to convince Davy that they actually have a lot to learn from these “savages”, to which Davy replies, “I shall hold with good old English ways”, illustrating the expedition leaders’ and organizers’ belief that whatever worked in the past surely will be successful today also. The discrepancy between the seemingly clear Northwest-Passage on a map and the reality of confusing, dangerous, unpredictable Arctic ice mazes was simply not yet understood.

Eventually George witnesses a mutiny, led by none other than his presumed friend Davy, and for a moment he is torn between loyalty to him and to his captain, Fitzjames. The uprising fortunately does not result in bloodshed but it leaves George in doubt: has he chosen the right side? Who will end up being right about which way to turn for rescue? This question may now prove critical.

Graves of Ice is a great introduction to the fascinating mystery of the Franklin Expedition for both young and adult readers. In fictional works on this subject, every author and novel offers a different view of how the expedition could have met its fate. The possibilities are many, and this book is a realistic scenario in which the puzzle parts seem to fit together well.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Shipwreck at Cape Flora

Shipwreck at Cape Flora: The expeditions of Benjamin Leigh Smith, England’s forgotten Arctic Explorer

by P.J. Capelotti

Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2013.

Reviewed by Jonathan Dore


Peter Capelotti, anthropologist at Penn State University, archaeologist of human space travel, sometime poet, and writer on many lesser-travelled byways in the exploration and exploitation of the seas, has now written the first biography of Benjamin Leigh Smith (1828–1913), who appears as a shadowy presence in the annals of late-19th-century Arctic exploration—mentioned in passing in the narratives of more famous names—but who is now given centre stage in an account that focuses on his three yachting expeditions to Svalbard and two to Franz Josef Land in the 1870s and 80s.

It doesn’t take long to understand the reason for Leigh Smith’s ghostly absence from the feast of Arctic exploration history, and consequently the challenge that Capelotti set himself. The explorer was such a shunner of public attention—friendly as well as hostile, in print as well as in person—that even medals awarded to him ended up being sent in the post rather than collected. He never wrote (let alone published) accounts of any of his expeditions beyond the bare bones of a ship’s log, and never presented a paper at a meeting or wrote one up for a journal. Even the private correspondence that survives rarely concerns itself with anything beyond the practical arrangements for his voyages, and there is no body of letters from him to other explorers or theorists of the day that might place him as part of the conversation of the time. Most of his letters are to family members and rarely stray beyond the domestic.

The great majority of what we know of him has therefore come from the writings of others. Some of his expeditions resulted in the publication of popular accounts by other participants—of varying quality—and colleagues were also responsible for writing up or analysing the scientific results of his voyages. Most of the rest comes from the dedication of an indefatigable family archivist, Charlotte Moore, without whose work in preserving the documents of her ancestor’s life Capelotti’s task, already difficult, would have been almost impossible.

Benjamin Leigh Smith was the eldest son in a wealthy but socially eccentric family of dissenters that, in the way of such families, produced some groundbreaking and impressive lives; Florence Nightingale was a cousin of the explorer, and the early feminist Barbara Bodichon was a sister. His parents were never married, and only in midlife did he and his siblings discover that their father had sired another family with another unmarried partner who was a few rungs down the social ladder—with the result that, in the stratified society of the time, the two families would never meet and could be kept in ignorance of each other. Capelotti identifies Leigh Smith’s sense of vulnerability to the social stigma of his illegitimacy as one of the drivers behind his reluctance to establish a public profile; his outsider status as a non-Anglican—not unusual among Victorian industrialists but surely rare among Home Counties landed gentry—was no doubt another.

After education at Cambridge and training in law, he coasted without much direction until the death of his father gave him the income to indulge a passion for sailing to the Arctic—something that, like much else in his life, seems to come out of the blue, an almost arbitrary whim for someone with no background in sailing or geographical research beyond an amateur's dabbling. Capelotti gives some possible antecedants for his dream in the voyages of other wealthy yachtsmen to the Arctic, including Lord Dufferin and James Lamont, for both of whom the primary interest had been hunting. This too became the rationale for Leigh Smith’s first expedition, in 1871 in the yacht Sampson, which he had purchased from another landowning huntsman, John Palliser (leader of the British North American Exploring Expedition of 1857–60, though the author notes the name without seeming aware of the identity). If there is more than a touch of self-indulgent vanity in a rich man going hunting in exotically remote locations, Leigh Smith at least avoided hubris: he knew his limitations. All of his voyages were skippered by professional captains and crewed by workaday fishermen and whalers, British or Norwegian, who knew their way around the ropes, and Leigh Smith never seems to have insisted on a dangerous course to prove either his authority or his manliness. Indeed, he made a virtue of his ships’ relative powerlessness against the forces of nature, developing an exploration philosophy that emphasized going with the flow, allowing wind, current, and ice conditions to dictate where the exploring would be done. It’s notable that hard-bitten skippers like the whaler David Gray wrote about him not as a dilettante they tolerated, but as a colleague they genuinely respected.

At a time when no government-sponsored expeditions had been sent to the Arctic from Britain in more than a decade, Leigh Smith’s first voyage showed what patience and modest expectations could accomplish in a much smaller craft than the adapted bomb vessels sent out by the Royal Navy. His target was Svalbard, and in searching to the east of it for Gillies Land (one of many landmasses in Arctic exploration history that turn out to have been mirages) the Sampson became the first ship to reach the easternmost tip of Nordaustlandet—and thus of the Svalbard archipelago as a whole—which was later fittingly named Cape Leigh Smith. Cruising back along the northern coast of the island a lucky run of very late-season fine weather in September allowed them to sail to the northernmost end of the archipelago as well, adding new coastlines and place names to the map. A second expedition to the same area the following year was less lucky with the weather and added only one further name to the map, while a third in 1873 became famous primarily as a humanitarian venture, when Leigh Smith arrived in time to give desperately needed help and supplies to the Swedish North Pole expedition, whose support ships had been frozen in the previous autumn, leaving its leader Nordenskiold with double the expected number of mouths to feed through the winter.

After three expeditions in as many years, it seems that Leigh Smith had got it out of his system, but after the disappointing results of Nares’s British Arctic Expedition of 1875–76 (Capelotti is somewhat unfair in branding this a complete failure, with its significant science programme and its new furthest norths for both men and ships), the triumph of Nordenskiold’s first sailing of the North-East Passage in the Vega in 1879, and the loss of the Jeannette north of the Lena, Leigh Smith seems to have reconsidered his retirement to the sidelines, and he returned to the fray on a grander scale than ever, this time having his own yacht purpose-built for Arctic work with an icebreaking bow and a supplementary steam engine. In 1880 in this vessel, the Eira, he made his most successful expedition and one of the most geographically productive single-season voyages in the history of Arctic exploration. Following up on the discovery of Franz Josef Land by Weyprecht and Payer in the year of his last expedition, 1873, he managed to sail more than a hundred miles further west along the archipelago’s southern coast than its discoverers had done, charting coastlines, identifying and naming individual islands and their prominent features, and showing it to be a significant landmass rivalling Svalbard in overall dimensions.

This voyage sealed his acclaim among the geographers of Europe and America, but when he tried to follow it up the next year Leigh Smith had only a couple of weeks of further discoveries in the same area before a misjudgement of ice conditions by the Eira’s skipper led to the book’s eponymous shipwreck at Cape Flora, when the vessel was pinned between fast and moving ice and soon crushed, though before she sank there was time to remove almost all of her supplies and equipment. Like Nordenskiold’s crews, they now faced an unexpected overwintering, but unlike the Swedes they were relatively few in number and very well supplied with food, though they had to improvise a hut from local stone plus canvas and wood from the ship. If one guiltily acknowledges a sense of bathos in reading of the almost complete lack of drama during the winter of 1881–82, it is a tribute to Leigh Smith’s leadership and sense of responsibility for his men that ensured everyone had enough to eat. Again, modest expectations came into play: with no superiors to impress, promotion to gain, or desire for fame, Leigh Smith made no ambitious plans for overland expeditions in the spring that would add to their stock of geographical discoveries before attempting their escape southwards. He was content for everyone to stay as warm, dry, and well-fed as himself. And when the ice broke up in 1882 they made a well-ordered voyage towards Novaya Zemlya in the boats, meeting relief just where they expected to from one of a small flotilla of craft sent out that year from Europe to find them.

Two seasons of significant geographical discovery, and involvement in two overwinterings—once as the reliever, once as the relieved—gave Leigh Smith an almost complete set of classic Arctic exploratory experiences, and even if age and the financial burden of the lost ship had not been factors, perhaps he sensed that his career as an explorer was now complete, for he never went north again. Instead, after the inevitable blaze of publicity had been, as usual, diverted onto the heads of colleagues and companions, he retreated to the domestic concerns of his family and the management of his estate.

Peter Capelotti has done a remarkable job in pulling together the rather slender sources for Leigh Smith’s life and voyages into a coherent narrative that benefits from its author’s deep familiarity with the wider background of exploration, geographical theory, and social history of his subject’s time (I spotted only one minor error, a repeated reference to the Royal Geographic, rather than Geographical, Society). The one serious drawback is not in the writing but in the lack of good maps. Apart from reproductions of 19th-century maps, which really provide only historical interest, there are a small number of modern maps in inconsistent formats, and none of sufficient scale to follow the track in detail or note all of the place names bestowed—and none at all of Franz Josef Land, where the greatest number of these names are found . Instead, we have only Payer’s and Markham’s contemporary maps, which are almost impossible to relate to each other, let alone to the reality on a modern map.

But there is a more central lack than maps, and one that no author could supply if it were not available in the sources: a sense of a subject’s real personality. The few genuinely self-revelatory writings we have by Leigh Smith (in his letters) reveal a character solipsistic and startlingly vindictive in personal relationships. But for a man of his drive and achievements, liked and admired by colleagues, there must have been more, and the lack of writings that would have given a sense of his wider view of the world, and of his activities in it, are a keenly felt absence that no maps could make up for. The contradictory outlines refuse to resolve into a coherent whole, so while the ghostly figure at the feast has been adumbrated, he can probably never be made solid.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

In Those Days

In Those Days: Collected Writings on Arctic History
Book 1: Inuit Lives

by Kenn Harper

Iqaluit: Inhabit Media. $19.95

Reviewed by Russell A. Potter




"In those days" is the English equaivalent of Taissumani, the name of Kenn Harper's long-running history column in the Nunatsiaq News; this volume collects from among them those dealing with significant Inuit figures. Many of them will be well-known to anyone with an interest in Arctic histories: "Joe" Ebierbing and "Hannah" Tookoolito, guides and translators for Charles Francis Hall; John Sakeouse, an interpreter and artist who accompanied John Ross on his 1818 voyage to northwest Greenland; and Hans Hendrik, who worked with Elisha Kent Kane, Isaac Israel Hayes, and was part of the party who survived on an ice-floe for six months after being separated from Hall's Polaris. But these are only three of the twenty-eight  life-stories in these remarkable, turnable pages. Harper, who has lived and worked in the Arctic for half a century, tells them with clarity and grace, drawing not only from his life experiences and personal contacts but from extensive historical research. I think it's fair to say that there's no living writer with more breadth and depth of knowledge of life in the Canadian Arctic and Greenland -- and by 'life' I mean the lives lived out on the land by people for whom explorers were merely occasional visitors and (often rather demanding) guests.

The tales encompass both the tragic and the comic. We learn of Tatamigana and Alikomiak, the only Inuit ever executed by hanging in Canada; of "Prince" Pomiuk, an Inuit boy who was part of a group displayed at the World's Columbian Exposition, but who suffered physical and emotional abuse during his time among the white people, returning home only to be rejected by his own; of Nancy Columbia, whom Harper aptly dubs the 'most famous Inuk in the world,' whose career stretched from that same Columbian Exposition which gave her her name to her roles in early Hollywood films alongside Tom Mix. Many of the figures here are known due to their connections with early missionaries, especially the Moravians who established the first missions in Labrador, and from whose settlements many Inuit departed to be shown to the public for education and (more often) profit. We learn, too, of those Inuit women who experienced intimate relations with male explorers; with the apparent exception of Hall, every last one of them seems to have had one or more Inuit mistresses. Particularly affecting is the account of Aleqasina, who became Peary's mistress at the age of fifteen, who at one point had to be nursed back to health by Peary's wife Josephine. And yet, of all these tales, perhaps the most touching is that of Ruth Makpii Ipalook, who as a child survived the ill-fated Karluk expedition. That's her on the cover -- and within the book, there's a photo taken of her in 2001, eighty-eight years later -- instantly recognizeable, as her smile was still exactly the same. Throughout the terrible trials of the Karluk survivors, who had to endure the loss of their ship followed by a long trek to land with inadequate supplies, Makpii kept up her spirits and those of others. Asked by her father, "Makpii, are we going to live out the year?" she replied cheerfully "We're living now, and we're going to keep on living!"

And that's what comes across most clearly in this collection -- the extraordinary spirit of the Inuit, who survived and thrived in a region where, despite their seemingly-superior knowledge and technology, white people kept getting lost, starving, and dying. It's the same spirit evident in Minik Wallace, the subject of Mr. Harper's previous book, Give Me My Father's Body -- and, as with that volume, it's the author's frankness, compassion, and intimate knowledge of Inuit life that makes every single one of these stories resonate.

NB: The book is amply illustrated with original pictorial materials, most of them from Mr. Harper's own notable collection. Inhabit Media, the book's publisher, is located in Iqaluit, Nunavut; the book is available now in Canada, and will be published in late March in the US.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

In the Shadow of the Pole

In the Shadow of the Pole: An Early History of Arctic Expeditions, 1871-1912

By S.L. Osborne

Toronto: Dundurn, CDN$26.99

Reviewed by Russell A. Potter


The history and status of Canada's sovereignty over its Northern possessions has been the subject of many recent studies, most of them focussing on the current geopolitical anxieties over transport  (the Northwest Passages) and potential oil and mineral claims by other circumpolar nations. There have been some excellent overviews of the issues at stake (including Shelagh D. Grant's's Polar Imperative, previously reviewed in these pages). And yet, oddly, there has been very little detailed attention paid to the history, much of it in the time of the Dominion, of the initial efforts by Canada to evaluate, establish, and reinforce its sovereignty. S.L. Osborne's book, despite its curious title (one is not quite sure what the word "Early" is meant to signify), does a fine job of recounting these little-known expeditions, painting in the process quite a vivid picture of the modest but persistent efforts of a young nation in making sense of its vast and frozen Northern zone in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The first of these expeditions were made in a curious attempt to ascertain the length of the navigable travel season in Hudson Bay. As any experienced Arctic pilot would know -- then and now -- there's no season, even the midsummer months, in which easy navigation in those frigid waters can be completely assured, and the government quest to establish one would seem foolish in the extreme. And yet, as Osborne shows, the real driver of these voyages was -- literally -- the price of wheat, or at least of shipping the same; in times when rail costs were high, the idea of a northern line to Hudson Bay had many influential backers. These backers, who as the question lingered sought every conceivable means to influence public opinion, even commissioning veteran explorer Albert Hastings Markham to accompany one voyage to add his celebrity endorsement as to the practicability of the route, were well-moneyed and well-connected. The report of the commander, Lieutenant Andrew Robertson Gordon, which quite accurately indicated the hazards and shortness of the season, was not to the liking of these men,  and they argued for further such expeditions until they heard what they wanted. Unfortunately for them, the later reports essentially did little more than confirm Gordon's assessment.

Gordon's expeditions -- which had also been given the scientific mission of establishing observation stations for the International Polar Year -- were remarkable in their overall success, rarely losing a man even when, as sometimes still happened, some member of the observation team stopped taking his dose of lime juice and nearly succumbed to scurvy. The expeditions that followed in his wake were again doubly tasked -- first with establishing sovereignty in the form of custom-houses and duty collection, and later with erecting and manning RCMP posts -- and again, they did their job in a business-like manner. Indeed, while the men most often celebrated from this era had only one task -- to explore -- these seemingly more modest ventures in fact often accomplished a great deal more.

In-between these narratives, Osborne weaves the story of Joseph-Elzéar Bernier, Canada's one great hope as a polar explorer. Fueled by having heard of Nansen's use of the Fram to follow polar drift, Bernier initially proposed a similar expedition, in which a ship would be deliberately icebound and drift its way to the pole. His proposal earned the support of many scientific and geographical organizations, as well as a number of members of Parliament. Bernier's plan, alas, was far too expensive for the Dominion government to countenance, and when, some time later, Bernier was at last given a ship, he was also given a supernumerary and sailing orders that restricted his activities to establishing and servicing trading posts and police stations. Looking at Bernier's original proposals, it's hard to imagine that he would have fared any better than, say, the Jeanette -- and yet at the same time, it's hard not to admire his spirit.

Osborne's book gives a serviceable, and at times quite engaging account of Bernier's career and those of the others who commanded government-funded expeditions in this period. The tone of the book is a bit odd at times -- Nansen is first described as a "six-foot blond," and Albert Peter Low as "a geologist with iron-man abilities" -- but overall, it's very capably written, and ably fills a significant gap in modern scholarship of Arctic expeditions. It also makes clear the connection that commerce has had, almost from the beginning, with the ostensibly purer motives of science and sovereignty.

My only complaint about the book is not to its author, but to whoever decided to put the endnotes online instead of in the book where they belong. Surely, the savings in omitting a mere eleven leaves of paper from the book are negligible, while the inconvenience of being unable to refer to a note without a computer or tablet is considerable. I sincerely hope that this will be corrected, and will not prove to be a trend.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Lost Beneath the Ice: The Story of HMS Investigator

Lost Beneath the Ice: The Story of HMS Investigator

Text by Andrew Cohen, with images from Parks Canada

Toronto: Dundurn CDN$29.99

Reviewed by Russell A. Potter



The story of the rediscovery of the wreck of HMS Investigator by Parks Canada in the frozen waters of Mercy Bay in July of 2010 captured the imagination of the world, and evoked the 'heroic age' of Arctic exploration in a way no other recent event has managed. In part, this is due to the way in which a ship, even in its watery grave, evokes the endeavor of exploration with far more gravity and magnificence than any recent discoveries on land have done (last summer's toothbrush, found at Erebus Bay, comes to mind). But it's also due to the fact that the Parks Canada team was uniquely positioned to undertake a thorough on-site survey of the wreck, and to transmit the news and images of their discovery via the Internet and the news media almost as they were happening. And, it should be mentioned, the chief reason that the archaeologists on the site had the kind of support and media access that they did was largely due to the predilection of the then and present Government of Canada for the symbolic significance of the Franklin expedition and those who searched for it, particularly in relation to the issue of Arctic sovereignty. This is not the place to debate the wisdom of that policy -- historians and the public must be grateful for the commitment of any kind of support to archaeological research of this kind -- but still, there is a certain irony surrounding the fact that, outside of Ryan Harris's team who features in this book, Parks Canada's archaeological staff has suffered from significant losses in funding and personnel.

That said, this is a glorious book, primarily for its beautifully-printed illustrative materials, which include many of the paintings of Lieutenant Gurney Cresswell, which until now were not readily available together, nor reproduced at such a generous scale. The original Admiralty schematics for HMS Investigator herself are also reproduced as double-page illustrations, along with images of some of the letters sent conveying the news of McClure's eventual rescue, and other materials of the day. The modern photographs, although they don't reveal new findings, are reproduced with excellent resolution, and possess a drama in the hand that's missing when the same images are viewed upon a screen. The overall quality of production is very high, and there's no other book of its kind that so dramatically evokes the hazards of Arctic navigation in the nineteenth century. I certainly can't imagine a more welcome holiday gift for any exploration buffs on one's list.

The text, alas, is somewhat less enlightening; while Andrew Cohen has exercised considerable skill in briefly recounting the voyage, the ship's imprisonment in the ice, and eventual abandonment, his lurid patches of language sometimes undercut the story's own intrinsic drama. He's more journalist than historian, which is fine insofar as the book quickly acquaints the reader, in broad strokes, with the history of Arctic exploration in Britain, the reasons the Franklin expedition was dispatched, and McClure's own role in the search for its missing ships. Those deep in the throes of what I like to call 'Franklinomania' will find nothing new, but then, the text isn't really meant for them. They will, however, find the illustrations and photographs as -- or perhaps even more -- valuable than the proverbial thousand words.