Monday, January 9, 2017

Polaris: The Chief Scientist's Recollections of the American North Pole Expedition, 1871-73

Polaris: The Chief Scientist's Recollections of the American North Pole Expedition, 1871-73

Translated and Edited by William Barr

U. Calgary Press $44.95 (ebook free)

Reviewed by Russell A. Potter

Since it's already been the subject of quite a number of books -- Chauncey Loomis's Weird and Tragic Shores, not to mention dueling exposés by Bruce Henderson (Fatal North) and Richard Parry (Trial by Ice), one might be forgiven for thinking that there's not much new to be learned about the ill-fated Polaris expedition to the North Pole commanded by Charles Francis Hall in 1871. One would be wrong, of course.

The expedition's doctor, Emil Bessels, published his own account of the voyage in Germany in 1879 under the title Die Amerikanische Nordpol-Expedition, but until now, there has been no English translation of his memoir. Thankfully, William Barr has undertaken this invaluable project, as he did earlier with Heinrich Klutschak's account of the Schwatka expedition, and this edition has all the customary hallmarks of his care and erudition. And, as Barr notes in an Epilogue, there's a new reason to take an interest in Bessels' version of events, since evidence has recently emerged giving him a powerful motive to have murdered his commander.

Those expecting such a book to have a lurid element will, however, be disappointed. Bessels, whatever his human failings, turns out to have been quite a good writer, seasoning his account with humor, relating events dispassionately, and demonstrating substantial knowledge of previous polar exploration. Early on, in giving his account of Isaac Israel Hayes's claim of a new furthest north, along with the sighting of an "open polar sea," Bessels offers an acute analysis, showing that Hayes's observations are completely inconsistent with both claims. Of course, it helped that the Polaris had just sailed through, and beyond, this purported open sea, but the clarity of his assessment is still impressive.

A few pages later, we're treated to one of the more wryly delightful accounts of the frustrations of shipboard dining in the frozen north that I know:
The food that was served up hot suffered a more significant cooling on its trip from the platter to the plate, and from the latter to the mouth, than the crust of the earth did at the start of the Ice Age; and food that came cold to the table became even colder there, before it could be eaten. Mayonnaise attained the consistency that properly prepared arrowroot ought to possess; English mustard reached the degree of hardness that a sculptor gives his modelling clay, and butter acquired the consistency of air-dried Swiss cheese.  Anyone who had a feeling heart beating in his breast would be moved to deep sadness by the sight of the sour pickled cucumbers. Half a dozen cycles of thawing and freezing which they had experienced in succession had etched massive wrinkles in their youthfully green skins which covered the wrinkled, shrunken flesh in folds. Surrounded by plump onions, slender beans and crisp heads of cauliflower that swam in crisping vinegar, they formed the saddest component that any still-life ever incorporated. 
Through passages such as these, the reader, quite naturally, begins to trust Bessels' account, and so of course wonders how he will treat of the death of his commander -- but here he or she will be disappointed. Hall's sickness and death are dealt with in very plain and prosaic manner, a bit surprising for someone who as the ship's doctor might feel that his readers would expect a greater degree of medical detail. There is, however, a telling moment after Bessels describes Hall's burial; he offers as his elegy a stanza from Canto 32 of Dante's Inferno.  The passage, which he may have chosen for its evocative imagery of sinners buried up to their necks in ice, has another significance: it's from that particular circle of Hell where those who have been treacherous to kin and country are punished.

Tookoolito at Hall's Grave (from a sketch by Bessels)
For there can be little doubt that Bessels possessed not only the means, but the motive for murdering Hall. As Barr notes, letters written by him to the young sculptress Vinnie Ream, with whom both he and Hall dined on several occasions before sailing, show that he was infatuated with her; my own research revealed that Hall, too, had special feelings for Ream (though his may have well been merely platonic). Bessels couldn't have helped but have noticed the gifts for Hall, including a miniature copy of her famous bust of Abraham Lincoln, that arrived by steamer at the Polaris's last stop at Upernavik, which were prominently displayed in his cabin. Jealousy, it seems, got the best of him, and augmented by the general resentment against Hall felt by others of the German scientific staff, led him to poison the captain's coffee with arsenic, with additional injections as "treatment" (Bessels claimed these were quinine), leading to the slow painful death of the one man who might, had he lived, have managed a sledge-trip to the pole.

Yet despite our knowledge of his crime, Bessels remains an observant and even charming narrator, and as Hall's death recedes into the background, the tale takes on, once again, the general descriptive tones of exploration narrative. As Barr notes, there's considerable information about climate, flora, and fauna, not to mention early Inuit settlements, that is elsewhere unavailable. Among these passages, though, there are some which raise still another concern.  According to the testimony given at the board of inquiry, the logbooks and journals from the Polaris were lost -- and yet Bessels, oblivious to this (or perhaps thinking his German readers would be unacquainted with the circumstances), seems at places to be drawing from them. It raises suspicions as to whether Bessels might have absconded with some of the missing logbooks, which might well have contained material he thought could incriminate him.

One gets the impression that Bessels was a methodial, efficient man who took pride in his scientific work, and hoped that his association with the disastrous expedition would not impede his overall career. If so, his hopes were largely unfulfilled; although a participant in some minor expeditions in the years after Polaris, the more ambitious ones he sought were postponed or cancelled due to difficulties with funding and other support. Along the way, he lost his office at the Smithsonian, and a fire destroyed his home near Washington D.C. (and with it, one supposes, any evidence for malfeasance there might have been among his papers); his last few years were marked by illness and instability, and he died of a heart attack at the age of forty-one.

William Barr, as ever, has produced a well-translated and throughly annotated edition. Extensive footnotes clarify many of Bessels' more obscure references, and the end-matter of the book includes a note on the new evidence as to his motive for murdering Hall, an account of the finding of the Board of Inquiry in his case, brief biographies of the senior members of the Polaris expedition, and a thorough bibliography. The University of Calgary Press has done the scholarly world a favor by making the book available as a free .pdf, but the printed version is well worth it; the quality of its production is high, and it's a book that deserves to be on the shelf beside any other accounts of the Polaris affair. It balances them, both with what it adds -- and what we know it withholds -- from that tragic story.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

At the End of the World: A True Story of Murder in the Arctic

At the End of the World: A True Story of Murder in the Arctic

By Lawrence Millman

St. Martin's Press, 2017

Reviewed by Russell A. Potter

The Arctic has been the theme of many a book – tales of  lost explorers, stories of oddball nothern "characters," and ecological parables of that bellwether northern zone. And yet some, though true in every particular to that portion of the earth which is their theme, have had a deep and profound resonance throughout a far wider swathe of our human experience. Barry Lopez's Arctic Dreams, and John McPhee's Coming Into the Country come to mind. Lawrence Millman's At the End of the World is one of these.

Millman's central story – that of a fit of religiously-inflected madness in which a number of Inuit on the remote Belcher Islands in Hudson Bay set upon their neighbors, whom they regarded as incarnations of  "Satan" –  is the main, but in a sense only partial theme of this book. Our solid-seeming world may end in any of a great number of ways, not just a bang or a whimper – and Millman's genius here is a matter of sensing out the proportions. In the Belcher Islands, the whole universe might be condensed into a single village, one by the name of Sanikiluaq  from which vantage-point, during the author's visit there, the rest of the world was but a phantom on a glowing box. It's often observed that we southerners have little notion of the day-to-day nature of life in the Arctic, but the reverse may also apply – and so it was, that when by chance the destruction of the World Trade towers took place in the midst of Millman's visit, its image on the television became even more surreal. The Inuit residents were at first inclined to change the channel to something more amusing, like a Road Runner cartoon, but switched it back when one man observed "There's an American here, and his country is falling down."

But that's just one "end" of one world. The other had come sixty years earlier, and the Belcher Islands had been its epicenter. It came in the form of a shooting star, which persuaded many Inuit there that perhaps the "end times" they'd read about in their syllabic Bibles were at hand. Its chief apocalyptic horseman was one Peter Sala, a local hunter who decided one day that he was God, and that anyone who didn't like that idea was probably Satan. Another man, Charlie Ouyerack, soon decided that he was Jesus, and God and Jesus joined forces to destroy the evil among them and prepare for the Second Coming. No rough beast ever slouched quite as low as these men, who began beating people to death and shooting them. Yet despite their depravity, their acts paled before those of Sala's sister Mina, whose mind gave way under the enormous pressure to conform to these new deities. She declared that Jesus was coming – right away – and summoned everyone out onto the ice. At her behest, many of them shed their fur clothing; the idea was that one should go to meet one's maker naked as the day one was born.

Of course nearly all of them died. One woman, the only one who had stayed behind, came out to those on the ice, and managed to get several of them, including Mina and two children, to return to the village, if not to their senses, but six others remained and soon froze to death. The aftermath of these deaths, which were belatedly investigated by the RCMP, is its own story, fraught with all the issues of religion, local culture, and the line between murderous intent and mental illness, and Millman tells it well. But despite the book's subtitle, these stories, though at the heart of the book, are only one of its interwoven themes. From the glowing box in the house in 2001 in Sanikiluaq, we move back and forth – back to Robert Flaherty's filming of Nanook of the North in 1921, and forward to our own moment, and our own ubiquitous portable glowing screens. We have, in Millman's view, become our own islands, disconnected from any sense of ourselves as much or more than this isolated Inuit village is from the rest of the world. We have lost, in his view, something more profound than perspective -- we have lost our essential humanity, becoming the servants of the machines we built to serve us.

It's a potent meditation, the more so for its dual anchors in the two worlds traversed by the book, and its resonance reaches far and wide. It remains possible, the reader discovers, for a single person in a small place to discover something about ourselves that the rest of us never stopped to notice. It's happened before – with Thoreau at Walden, Muir in his woods, or Rachel Carson in her office at the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries – but it doesn't happen often. Millman's epigrammatic style – a departure from the straightforward (but no less lyrical) one of his many previous books – is its own sly benefactor; under its spell, we become open to insights that neither simple storytelling nor argumentative diatribes could have brought us.

In the final chapter of Walden, Thoreau exhorts his readers to turn away from earthly exploration, to "be rather the Mungo Park, the Lewis and Clark and Frobisher, of your own streams and oceans; explore your own higher latitudes." In this book, Lawrence Millman shows us that it's possible to travel to both places -- the ends of the earth and our interior poles -- at the same time.