Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Wanting: A Novel

Wanting, by Richard Flanagan

NY: Atlantic Monthly Press, $24

Reviewed by Russell A. Potter

Wanting is the latest, but surely not the last, in the tradition of fiction inspired by some aspect of the career of Sir John Franklin. And yet, even in this crowded field, it stands out as one of only two or three that draw fully and richly from the indigenous cultures among which Franklin sojourned, and it is the only one to take on his and Lady Jane's relationship with the aboriginal peoples of Tasmania. At the same time, by alternating this narrative with a fictionalized account of Charles Dickens's personal crises in the later 1850's -- a period which would see both the death of his youngest daughter and his separation from his wife -- he complicates the colonial landscape with a cobblestone corollary. The most unexpected figure in all of this is a tragic heroine of almost Dickensian proportions, the native Tasmanian girl Mathinna, adopted by the Franklins during their time at Government House in Hobart Town, then abandoned when they returned to England in 1843.

Mathinna's story has been told before -- most powerfully in a radio play by Carmen Bird, In Her Father's House, which was broadcast on ABC Australia in 2003. Yet here, interwoven into Flanagan's dense, Tolstoyesque garden of forking narratives, it seems somehow even darker and more desperate. Mathinna was part of that remnant of Tasmania's original people who had been rounded up and isolated on Flinders Island (named after Franklin's uncle) under a policy conceived of as protection but in practice both a cultural and literal act of genocide. The program was administered by George Augustus Robinson, the chief "Protector of Aborigines," a man who never appreciated the irony of his title. Early on, Flanagan gives us a vivid portrait of the workings of his mind, and we see the method in the madness he directed. To him, Lady Jane's desire to adopt Mathinna is a conundrum; he recognizes a certain imperious selfishness to which, given the Franklins' position, he has little choice but to accede. Jane comes across as a bossy, breezy, and thoughtless woman, and her husband -- when he comes across at all -- is reduced to little but a wheezing, overweight sack of compliance. Rarely in the tradition of Franklin fiction has the "great man" appeared so reduced; when, as he always does, he dies in this narrative, one can scarcely even muster a feeling of pity.

At the same time, we are introduced to the world of Dickens, and here again Flanagan has clearly done his historical homework. We see him both as the toast of polite society and the restless recluse, wandering the streets of London by night; we meet two men -- John Forster and Wilkie Collins -- whose rivalry for his intimacy triangulates this period of his life. Dickens, of course, was quite carried away by the public feeling over the disappearance of Franklin, offering his services to Lady Jane to dispel Dr. John Rae's reports of cannibalism in 1854, as well as producing, with Collins, the 1857 play The Frozen Deep, which was in many ways a public elegy for Franklin's men. And it was during the Manchester performances of the play at which he met Ellen Ternan, a young actress who quite won his heart, and with whom he spent the rest of his life in a possibly Platonic relationship (they burned all their letters, so the world may never know).

The parallels between the world of Dickens and that of Mathinna seem at times a bit strained; the "experiment" of "civilizing" an Aboriginal girl, and her later abandonment, seems quite distant from Dickens's emotional travails in the midst of a bustling London literary scene. And yet time, being made of moments, works some wonders here; Flanagan frames the epiphanies of his characters as vividly and multifariously as the famous seven hundred looking glasses with which the "Erebus" and "Terror" were festooned for a fancy dress ball while calling on Hobart Town in the midst of James Clark Ross's circumnavigation of Antarctica. That these same ships, only a few years later, would be witness to Franklin's own death and nearly twenty of his men, is a fact not lost on Flanagan, who finds light in darkness and darkness in light. He makes the ball into a costume party, giving Mathinna a wallaby mask and Sir John -- who escorts her on board -- that of a black swan, which enables richly memorable lines: "'Our princess of the wilds,' sighed a wolf."

Mathinna herself comes through vividly, and with the kind of uncondescending empathy that's rare in fictional depictions of tragic native figures. Flanagan has caught something of the weave and the weft of her world, of the impossibility of the promise leant to her by Lady Franklin's stiff affection, the gazes of the white fellas, and the famous red dress given by her Ladyship, preserved in the oil portrait she commissioned. The details of Mathinna's known life form a kind of armature for the fabric of Flanagan's imaginings, but he leaves some parts of his own cloth unwoven and gauzy, as he should.

It would be unfair to the reader to trace the ultimate denouement of these darkly twinned, deeply tangled tales -- suffice it to say that Flanagan manages to make a sort of resolution out of the lack of resolution offered by history. In a Beckettian phrase, Garney Walch, the old oxcart driver who had first driven Mathinna into Hobart Town muses on the meaning of it all:

"How it goes,' he murmured," and keeps on going."
And so it goes.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Encounters on the Passage

Encounters on the Passage: Inuit Meet the Explorers

Dorothy Harley Eber
University of Toronto Press, 2008
ISBN (cloth): 978-0-8020-9275-5

Reviewed by David C. Woodman

I have always envied Dorothy Harley Eber. Two decades ago my soon-to-be editor kindly invited me to lunch to discuss my unpublished manuscript. A charming lady named Dorothy who had a similar interest in Inuit oral history accompanied her. At that time Dorothy, unknown to me, was already famous for her groundbreaking Pitseolak: Pictures Out of My Life. That book was an illustrated oral biography of the Inuit artist Pitseolak Ashoona created from recorded interviews Dorothy had undertaken in 1970. She had recently completed another biography based on interviews with Peter Pitseolak eventually published as the excellent People from Our Side.

Whereas I mined dusty and obscure sources for Inuit testimony collected during the nineteenth century, Dorothy actually met with living Inuit and over the years had patiently developed a trust and rapport that allowed her to record and preserve a fast-fading culture. We shared a belief in the value of the Inuit oral tradition, both in itself and as a cross-cultural window into historical events. Dorothy had notably pursued this second avenue with her When the Whalers Were Up North: Inuit Memories from the Eastern Arctic (1989), her first foray into contact between the Inuit and Europeans.

We had a delightful lunch, and I remember asking Dorothy whether there were any modern memories of the Franklin disaster (my own area of interest) among her informants. In this book, finally, and much to my delight, Dorothy has answered that question.

Gleaned from interviews conducted between 1994 and 2008, Encounters on the Passage relates modern Inuit remembrances, passed down through generations, of encounters with European explorers. Eber’s aim in doing so is simple and practical – to preserve the Inuit oral tradition. Yet this book is not simply a repository of endangered stories. Throughout Eber takes pains to place the Inuit traditions in historical context and to compare them with written accounts preserved by the explorers themselves. In doing so she concludes that the traditions offer “correlations and contrasts, and, always, new perspectives.”

Eber is fully forthright about the difficulties involved in the use of Inuit oral history. Tommy Anguttitauruq tells her, “every time the stories are told, maybe they'r [sic] a little bit different; there's a little bit added and maybe some things left out” and she notes that the stories “are sometimes blended or “collapsed” … [t]hese stories are now getting through to the next generation only in a fragmented state.” Even so, as the narrative makes clear, these relics of old traditions often complement the preserved stories of the great-great-grandparents of Eber’s informants. Whether these correlations are confirmation or repetition is more difficult to determine.

The stories themselves preserve Inuit traditions ranging in date from the expeditions of Martin Frobisher (1575-78), to the successful accomplishment of the Northwest Passage by Amundsen in 1903. As the theme of the work is to show the reliability of transmitted oral tradition it is not perhaps surprising to see that there is nothing particularly new in most of the stories, which are often rather pale reiterations of traditions originally relayed, mainly in the nineteenth century, to Rae, McClintock, Hall and Schwatka.

The best test for the accuracy and resiliency of Inuit testimony comes from extended interactions during Sir William Edward Parry's 1821-23 sojourn at Igloolik, and Sir John Ross’ voyage to Lord Mayor Bay between 1830-34. These well-documented expeditions allow Eber to usefully compare modern remembrances with the journals of the explorers themselves. Eber relays various versions of the most colourful intercultural incidents of these interactions. Given prominence of place is the punishment meted out by Parry to a local shaman for stealing a shovel and the shaman’s supernatural revenge. The stories of Ross’ visit include the initial discovery of his ship in the ice and subsequent deliberations among the Inuit, and various tales of the repeated visits of the Inuit to his vessel.

Here the interest lies not so much in the content of the modern recollections, but in noting how these have been filtered and modified by the passage of over a century and a half. Some of the modern Inuit stories also contribute to exploration history by dealing with matters unknown to the explorers themselves, such as the final resting place of Ross’ abandoned Victory, or the use made by the Inuit of his “treasure trove” of abandoned equipment.

The modern stories are best at relaying charming cross-cultural vignettes of a hunter so afraid of a strange ship that he ran so fast that his caribou coat trailed behind him in the wind, of a girl using tobacco blocks as toys, or of children throwing flour into the air as "smoke" having no idea of its food value.

These opening chapters lead to the core of the book, the stories relating to the Third Franklin expedition (1845-?). Comprising almost half of the book, the next three chapters deal with this doomed expedition and the Inuit remembrances of it. The chapters revolve around three of the pivotal questions of the disaster - the burial of a “shaman” or officer, encounters of Franklin’s doomed men on the march, and the location of the wreck(s) of the expedition vessels.

Here Eber runs into the difficulty that, even according to her modern informants, “nobody saw the ship - what happened to it; or how they died … Little stories, here and there. We don't know much at all.”

The remembrances concerning the burial of an officer again follow closely on other recorded testimony, particularly that known as the “Bayne story” which Eber surprisingly buries in a long endnote. Presumably dealing with the burial of a senior officer (usually assumed to be Franklin himself) and, more significantly, with the nearby burial or deposition of written records, the modern physical description of the site “a sandy hill” matches that of Bayne, although the exact location remains frustratingly vague.

The stories of encounters with Franklin survivors on the march are given in three versions, all located in different but uncertain areas. Two of these deal with Franklin crewmen wandering into a camp, one told from the perspective of the women, and one from that of the hunters who returned to find that strangers had come to visit. Even the Inuit are unsure whether these traditions “might be the same story ... but passed on through a different family in a different manner.” These stories do not have much in common with the testimony preserved by Hall, Schwatka and Rasmussen about an encounter between hunters and struggling men in Washington Bay, but there are enough common elements (being offered a small piece of seal, the abandonment of the Europeans after one night etc.) to make one wonder whether these are indeed new stories.

Eber herself considers the stories of the “ship at Imnguyaaluk” and the “fireplace trail” to be the most significant of her collection remarking that they “add a new chapter to the Franklin tragedy.”

The first deals with the discovery by Inuit of a ship to the east of the Royal Geographical Society Islands, and of a presumed Franklin campsite ashore. Although the story adds detail, this again is not entirely new information as Amundsen was told of a ship having been seen here (Eber notes this herself, but not until 10 pages later). The traditions that tell of visits to this ship and interactions with its crew are also in accordance with older stories about pre-abandonment encounters between the Franklin expedition and Inuit and, from the location, tend to validate the hypothesis that at least one ship (only one is mentioned) was remanned after the initial 1848 abandonment.

The “fireplace trail” stories also tend to reinforce this idea as they deal with a sequence of encampments found around the western and northern coasts of the Adelaide Peninsula. These seem to mark a party retreating from the ship spoken of as having been abandoned near O’Reilly Island. The first find was at “Aveomavik” a small island off Grant Point, where Michael Angottitauruq found a non-Inuit campsite and bones of three individuals in 1984. The discovery of campsites and human remains on a small islet nearby in 1997, 2002, and 2004 lends support to this story. Other locations on the “trail” recollect finds from the nineteenth century at Thunder Cove and northwest of Starvation Cove.

Eber then diverts to a long consideration of the possibility that one of Franklin’s ships traversed Simpson and/or Rae Strait to come to rest near Chantrey Inlet or Matty Island. The first idea is based entirely on late testimony from the Anderson expedition that is well known if not widely supported. The idea of a Matty Island wreck is also previously attested, mainly by testimony relayed to Maj. Burwash in 1929. This told of a strange but orderly cache of crates found inland on an islet near a sunken wreck. Eber’s informants add to our knowledge of this strange cache with an eyewitness account of it. They found “burlap and cotton bags filled with flour and sugar and perhaps something like porridge – oatmeal. These were all buried in a mound covered with part of a cotton sail buried under sand and rocks … and when they uncovered this cache they found cans, sacks of sugar, oatmeal.”

This detailed description further calls into doubt the opinion of most commentators (uncritically accepted by Eber) that this deposit was formed from cases of dog food thrown overboard by Amundsen while the Gjoa was enmeshed in the Matty Island shoals. Both the Burwash account of carefully stacked cases inshore, and this new story of a carefully buried cache, imply stores left deliberately and point to the Franklin expedition. This does not necessarily support the idea of a wrecked vessel nearby, which has been repeatedly searched for in vain, for a cache here could have been established to support survey or possible retreat parties.

The book ends with chapters of Inuit stories about the Collinson expedition sent in search of Franklin and of remembrances of Amundsen’s Northwest Passage triumph. Again these stories are interesting windows into the Inuit perception of the visits of these strangers but offer little new information of significance to historians. The publisher’s claim that “new information opens another chapter in our understanding” of the events of these expeditions, especially the Franklin disaster, is perhaps overstated. A close reading shows that there is actually very little new information presented, and that where there is it tends to, at best, confirm earlier evidence.

Overall, the book is a very worthy contribution to the store of preserved Inuit oral traditions. It serves as a useful reference and introduction to the stories relating to explorers that are otherwise scattered throughout the literature on British Arctic exploration, and sets them in a clear context. Those who are already familiar with the traditions will enjoy tracing the genealogies of the modern remembrances; others will be interested in the effect of time on changing the original versions.

To her credit Eber only rarely gets caught up in the intricacies of historical speculation and primarily stays with her strength – the reporting and preservation of the stories themselves. This is a task she was seemingly born to do, and once again we are indebted for her painstaking labours.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Face to Face: Polar Portraits

Face to Face: Polar Portraits
Huw Lewis-Jones
with Foreword by Ranulph Fiennes and Afterword by Hugh Brody
Cambridge: Scott Polar Research Institute in association with PolarWorld, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-901021-083-3/07-6

Reviewed by Jonathan Dore

Face to Face is a travelling exhibition—and now a beautifully produced book—that emerged from “Freeze Frame”, the Scott Polar Research Institute’s project to digitize some 20,000 photographs from its archives. The project’s curator, Huw Lewis-Jones, seems to have been particularly struck by the range of portraiture in the collections, and decided to create an exhibition in which 50 portraits from the archives would be supplemented by another 50 by the photographer Martin Hartley (some previously taken, some newly commissioned), a hugely experienced veteran of 17 polar expeditions. Each of the 100 featured portraits is presented on a full page or double page spread with a caption to the side (usually a generous couple of paragraphs) about the sitter. Preceding these are an essay by Lewis-Jones on early photography and its first applications in the polar regions (“Photography Then”), and succeeding it is a conversation between Lewis-Jones and Hartley on the differing challenges presented by polar conditions to the art today (“Photography Now”). And bookending the whole lot are a foreword by the explorer Ranulph Fiennes and an afterword by the anthropologist Hugh Brody. As a further bonus, all the text features are themselves very generously illustrated.

Herbert Ponting’s haunting cover portrait of the piercing eyes and sun-blackened face of Cecil Meares—expert dog driver on Scott’s Terra Nova expedition—underlines what will surely be the expectation of many that these will mainly be portraits of explorers. Many indeed are, but an important point the selection underlines is that the poles, or at least the Arctic, are a region where people live as well as explore and do science, a point made with gentle grace by Hugh Brody in his afterword, the most beautiful prose in the book. From the portrait of an unnamed Inuit boy in Godhavn in 1869 to another in Resolute Bay in 2008, Inuit sitters are a continuous presence (though it’s a pity there aren’t any images of indigenous people from Arctic Eurasia alongside them). But the “portrait” part of the title is equally important as the “polar” part: these are all individual portraits, a single sitter’s body, and often just the face, dominating the frame. And all are posed, not merely cropped from a general action or group shot. Having said that, there is much variety in the settings in which they are found. Modern photography, with its much shorter exposure times, allows images to be captured quickly out on the ice with the wind howling and the icicles forming on beard or eyebrow, though this can lead counterproductively to images that feature polar clothing more than the people wearing it (can a picture in which literally no part of the face is visible, such as those of Stephen Jones, David de Rothschild, and Ian Wesley, be meaningfully described as a portrait?).

By contrast, many people famous for doing uncomfortable things in uncomfortable places are discovered relaxing in their sitting room or library, emphasizing that it’s the individuals and their achievements, not the setting, that defines their inclusion. And for the best-known subjects, for whom a choice of images was presumably available, the selection is often pleasingly unexpected: Scott and Wilson not in harness, but in three-piece suits; Shackleton munching a sandwich; Vivian Fuchs with a towel on the way to a bath. Fame itself, however, is not a criterion for inclusion, and almost any connection with the poles confers eligibility if it results in a good portrait. Lewis-Jones and Hartley regret some of the names they haven’t been able to include, and interested readers will no doubt be able to think of more—Otto Sverdrup, Adolf Nordenskiƶld, John Rae, Elisha Kane, Isaac Hayes, and Frederick Jackson are a few of the obvious ones that popped into my exploration-biased head—but perhaps a simple absence of images in the SPRI collection is to blame. It’s important to remember that this isn’t an encyclopedia with claims of, or responsibility to strive for, comprehensiveness or consistency. Even so, the many omissions make some of the inclusions less comprehensible: for instance the polar connections of Keith Dedman, a naval helicopter pilot who once airlifted passengers from an icebound ship, and Cha-Joon Koo, a Korean insurance executive sent to Antarctica to “check on” Park Young Seok (who perhaps should have been included instead), seem tangential to say the least. And Hartley’s fondness for a pretty pair of eyes has led to the inclusion of two portraits—the Spanish girlfriend of an adventurer about to set off from Siberia, and a Turkish-Bulgarian popcorn seller in London who happens to be wearing a fur-hooded parka—that frankly have no place in the selection no matter who else is in or out.

Lewis-Jones’s extended opening essay artfully summarizes the first few decades of technical development in photography before segueing neatly into the portraits taken by Richard Beard (the first British practitioner of Daguerre’s process) of Franklin’s officers in 1845, from which he proceeds to summarize the role of photography in Arctic exploration during the 19th and early 20th centuries—as documentary tool, as raw material for painters, as artistic statement in its own right, and finally as motion pictures. There is much of value here for readers interested in any aspect of the first century of photography’s history, including philosophical and aesthetic questions as well as its technical developments and social effects.

But the real interest for this reviewer was in “Photography Now”, in which Lewis-Jones and Hartley discuss not only the equipment needs and techniques of a present-day polar photographer but also range widely over the psychology of portrait-making, the role of paid expedition photographer in balancing his own professional judgement with his client’s wishes, and whether anyone travelling somewhere on the earth’s surface in the age of Google Earth and satellite phones can any longer be described as an explorer. Humans more or less ran out of virgin territory to explore sometime in the 20th century (at least without going underwater or into space—the first twice as large an area as the earth’s land surface, the second somewhat larger still!), and we are accustomed to the idea that the challenges available now are essentially secondary: doing something using a new technique, or in a new combination, or faster, or in more difficult conditions. But Lewis-Jones wonders whether even that ethic of self-challenge is enough any longer, or whether “to be imagined as valuable they [also] need to be relevant”. Just as few non-athletes would contemplate running a marathon without doing it for a “good cause”, most polar travelling expeditions, both solo and team, now also try to bring some climatic, zoological, or social problem to wider attention—and climate most of all, since the poles are the places in which global warming will have, and is already having, the most dramatic effects. Scientists have the best case of any outsiders for being at the poles; they are “adding to the existing body of knowledge”. But they fly into known locations and then generally stay put, so their work no longer involves exploration in a geographical sense. So this well thought-out, nicely balanced, and carefully crafted book not only casts a retrospective view on polar history, but captures it at a moment when our understanding of and engagement with it is in transition, as those trying to keep alive a tradition of heroic confrontation with the elements sit sometimes happily, sometimes uneasily beside those who anxiously monitor its environmental condition, and those whose lives and culture are inextricably bound up with the fate of the icy realms.