Thursday, June 3, 2021

Franklin's Fate / No Earthly Pole

Franklin's Fate. An Investigation Into What Happened to the Lost 1845 Expedition of Sir John Franklin, by John Roobol.

Canterbury/Kent, The Conrad Press, 2019.

No Earthly Pole: The Search for the Truth About the Franklin Expedition 1845, by Ernest C. Coleman. 
Stroud/Gloucestershire, Amberley, 2020.

Reviewed by Frank Michael Schuster

Since the discovery of John Franklin’s ships, no one has attempted a complete reconstruction of the tragic and dramatic events that must have taken place in the Canadian Arctic after 1845 or claimed to have solved the riddles surrounding the expedition. Richard J. Cyriax’s book appeared as early as 1939, David Woodman's reinterpretation in the early 1990s. His analysis of what the 19th century search expeditions had learned from the Inuit led to completely new insights. Dorothy Harley Eber therefore went about recording knowledge that currently still exists among today’s Inuit about the various Arctic expeditions and published it in 2008. The fact that HMS Erebus was actually found in 2014 where it had sunk according to Inuit lore shows how important it was to use oral traditions as a source. Russell Potter eventually set out to tell the story of the more than one hundred search expeditions and their discoveries and findings, without attempting a full reconstruction. Neither he nor Woodman suspected that HMS Terror had sunk in Terror Bay of all places, where it was discovered in 2016 shortly after Potter’s book was published. In consequence of this discovery, however, the previous theories are once again put to the test. Questions such as whether the ships drifted or sailed to where they are now, or whether there were people – dead or alive – on board during the sinking, are still unanswered, but might now be resolved. That is why most academic, as well as non-academic historians, are waiting for now for news from the archaeologists.

Consequently, two recently published books, in which the authors claim to have more or less solved the mysteries surrounding the demise of Franklin’s expedition, naturally arouse high expectations. While John Roobol in his “enthralling book”, according to the publisher's announcement, “offers a most convincing interpretation of what really happened to the lost, heroic expedition,” Ernest C. Coleman claims not only to have uncovered a conspiracy of academics and politicians, solved the expedition’s biggest riddles “and given new answers to all the many smaller mysteries that continue to be reproduced by others” but even declares: “I have also revealed the possible site of Franklin’s grave, the biggest mystery of all.”

Like the physician Richard J. Cyriax before him, the retired geologist John Roobol set out to solve the mystery from the desk in his study. But since his book was too academic for many publishers in 2019 he turned it into a novel called Trapped. The publisher that finally accepted this novel then decided to publish Franklin’s Fate too, “with his editing,” as the author states. Unfortunately, he does not say what this meant, because the book sadly contains a large number of small errors that a copy-editor could have eliminated relatively easily. To name just one of many examples, John Franklin’s companion during his first two Arctic expeditions is repeatedly called Dr George Richardson before he is finally given his real first name John. Anyone who picks up the book to learn something about the expedition will be misinformed or confused by such contradictory information. Even readers who are familiar with the subject are increasingly unsettled by this and might wonder whether the book, if it already contains so many small errors, does not also contain several larger ones. This is a pity, because Roobol’s stated intention was to write a book aimed at both laymen and specialists. 

Not leaving his study, he neither went into the Arctic himself nor any archive, but he has at least quoted extensively from the aforementioned books by Woodman, Eber and Potter as well as printed expedition narratives. However, it is difficult to trace his sources and the literature used, because the years of publication mentioned in the notes next to the author’s name are often just as wrong as the page numbers given. 

Already in the first chapter, Roobol tells the story as he sees it. Thereby he creates the impression that everything really happened that way. Perfectly legitimate in a novel, this is, at the least, irritating in a historical study. It is all too easy for inexperienced readers to lose sight of the fact that these are nothing more than more or less well-founded assumptions. After some more introductory chapters on the reliability of the Inuit statements, King William Island, the Northwest Passage in general, John Franklin and his officers, he returns to his reconstruction of the events, now again pretending at the beginning of each chapter that the events he is focusing on happened that way, before providing insight into his sources and enabling readers to understand the genesis of his interpretation. In many cases he follows Woodman’s reconstruction, but also includes more recent testimonies from Eber's book. In particular, reports of non-Inuit fire sites on Imnguyaaluk, one of the Royal Geographical Society Islands, are a key point in his reconstruction, as he concludes that the crew stayed there for a longer period of time with HMS Erebus. Despite considerations like these, which make Roobol's book stimulating, his habit of declaring his interpretation the only one possible is grating. For example, at the beginning of chapter 18, a well-known Inuit story is mentioned about an Inuk’s encounter with sailors on board a ship:
“One of these testimonies describes the crew in some detail as ‘black men’. There is only one place in the sequence of events that can account for such an occurrence.”
To those familiar with the works of Woodman, Potter and others, such a statement must seem downright absurd, for the tale about the ‘black men’ is precisely one of the most controversially discussed stories among researchers and, depending on the interpretation, may have taken place at any point between 1846 and 1848 near Cape Felix, on board either ship, or later on board HMS Terror in Terror Bay and not necessarily in 1850 near Imnguyaaluk on board HMS Erebus, as Roobol believes. Interesting as his interpretations are, especially where he does not follow Woodman's, they should be comprehensible. However, as in this case, this is not always the case: while Roobol in his reconstruction assumes that the meeting of the Inuk with the ‘black men’ took place at a time when there were only about a dozen men left on board Erebus, the original source clearly refers to a “great many men”. But the author does not even mention this contradiction.

Moreover, it is only legitimate to claim categorically that this is how something happened and not any other way if one can prove conclusively that other interpretations must be wrong. Unfortunately, Roobol does not do that either. Alternatives are rarely mentioned, and where they are, not dealt with in detail. If one wants to understand how he arrives at his often quite commendable conclusions, one has to take into account which presuppositions he starts from. In this case, for example, for Roobol it is impossible that the meeting with the ‘black men’ could have taken place on board HMS Terror in Terror Bay because the ship, as he has repeatedly claimed before but never explains, drifted there unmanned and was never manned again. He says this conviction is based on the findings of underwater archaeologists. Therefore, he also excludes an Inuit eyewitness report of a fast-sinking ship recorded by Charles F. Hall, simply by declaring the story not compatible with the description of the wrecks. This is problematic for two reasons: first, the question of whether the ships drifted or sailed has not yet been answered by underwater archaeologists, and second, the source rejected, though printed in an appendix, is not the only source on the matter. The author himself even quotes the corresponding passage from the expedition narrative by Francis L. McClintock in a different context, but does not utter a word about the fact that the rapidly sinking ship is also mentioned there. It is legitimate to question the authenticity of a source, but then one should also be able to explain why. But Robool does not do that: he simply points out that Woodman also rejected another story by the same Inuk about an encounter with John Franklin. But Woodman did not do that at all. He rejected not the story itself, which he did incorporate into his interpretation, but Hall’s belief that it was Franklin whom the Inuk had met.

This is just one example of many chains of argumentation within Roobol’s reconstruction of events that either start from a weak, barely substantiated initial premise, or even lead to circular arguments. The claim that Francis Crozier and James Fitzjames, who took over the command after Frankin's death, did not get along with each other –leading to a supposed split in the expedition between the crews of the two ships–is another example.

Frequently repeating premises or key assumptions unfortunately does not help make Franklin’s Fate an “enthralling book” either. It remains at best a thought-provoking one for a knowledgeable reader and an interesting one for a novice, but one that nevertheless should be read with caution. 


Whether one may call Ernest C. Coleman’s book thought-provoking depends on your point of view – provoking it surely is, especially those parts in which he is not speaking about his own adventures following the track of the Franklin Expedition on King William Island, but is telling the reader what he things really happened to the Franklin Expedition. 

Unlike John Roobol in his study, Ernest Coleman (like David Woodman) is one of those people who want to solve the mystery on site. A Royal Navy lieutenant with a keen interest in John Franklin's expedition, he made four expeditions to King William Island himself in the first half of the 1990s, originally with the declared aim of finding John Franklin's grave. After he was subsequently sent into retirement he became an author, writing and lecturing on the Royal Navy, Victorians, polar expeditions, the search for the Holy Grail and much more.

His newest, beautifully crafted book is for the most part an amusing, self-ironizing account of his journeys to the Arctic and of his attempts in between to set up the next expedition through his contacts within the Navy and with other people interested in Franklin. As such, the book is certainly worth reading, though Coleman's views and perspective on the world and the Navy in general, and Franklin's expedition in particular, may irritate quite a few readers in the 21st century. Not without reason he has been called a late Victorian in the press before, as he himself proudly relates. He seems to have fallen out of time completely.

Accordingly, the reason why he does not reach his destination, the northwest of the island and Cape Felix, on his first try, for him is not so much his inadequate preparation, but – in keeping with 19th century tradition – rather the uncooperative, lying, thieving Inuit. At least he discovered the remains of a skeleton on Todd Island, probably overlooked in the 1870s. 

He undertook the second expedition alone, but had to survive for an extra ten days on drinking chocolate and Fisherman's Friends after the plane sent to pick him up was unable to land due to adverse winds. He may have discovered the cairn at Victory Point left by James Clark Ross in 1830 while discovering the North Magnetic Pole there. At least that seems quite possible by comparing the photograph printed in the book with the drawing from Ross’ narrative. The exact location of Ross's Victory Point is still disputed today and, as is clear from the so-called Victory Point Note, one of the few messages from the expedition ever to be found, was already disputed or at least unclear in 1848. But while Roobol sees this as further confirmation of the alleged constant conflict between Crozier and Fitzjames, Coleman’s account of his experiences makes it clear that the problem Franklin's men faced maybe was much simpler: lack of orientation. On an island of nothing but gravel, boulders, rocks and some tundra, roughly the size of the US state of Connecticut or the old County of Yorkshire in England, orientation is difficult even without snow and ice, especially since the compass is useless due to the proximity of the magnetic pole. Identifying places on maps in such a landscape is anything but easy, even for officers who know how to handle maps, as Coleman's experience shows.

The third expedition was larger once again. Coleman was joined by, among others, Peter Wadhams, the then director of the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge/UK, and a French film crew, because he was convinced that he had discovered Franklin's grave and two burial mounds next to it during his earlier trip. However, the archaeologist in charge, who had flown in especially accompanied by a geologist, was of a different opinion. Both thought that the supposed grave and the mounds were natural and that all the other traces pointed out to them were not the remains of the Franklin expedition either, contrary to Coleman's opinion. The expedition then visited the remains of a boat further north, on Prince of Wales Island, possibly dating from the mid-19th century. Resolute-based meteorologist Wayne Davidson had heard about it from local Inuit and was willing to show the site to the expedition. For those who have been interested in the Franklin expedition for a long time, however, this discovery is equally not new. After Coleman's expedition, the find was now known at least among experts. In 1999 Davidson himself went public with it by presenting photos and his reflections online on one of the first websites about the Franklin Expedition. Ten years later, the page disappeared, reappeared in 2013 and disappeared again after some time, but can still be found in versions saved at that time. 

Coleman undertook the fourth and final expedition with Cameron Treleaven, not only a Canadian antiquarian specializing in the polar regions but also a trained archaeologist. Unsurprisingly, given the author’s distrust of bookish men in general and archaeologists in particular, they did not get along very well as a team and left the Arctic separately. 

Had Coleman left it at publishing a travelogue, we would have had before us a sometimes funny, mostly interesting book, from which we can not only learn something about the continuing interest in Sir John Franklin's last expedition and late 20th century expeditions to the Arctic, but also one from which the mindset of the officers of the Victorian Navy becomes clear in a surprising way –being mirrored in the opinions, thoughts and deeds of the author. But Coleman had, after all, set out to solve the mystery of the Franklin Expedition and find the Holy Grail of Franklin seekers – Sir John's grave. Not only that, but he wants to clear the expedition of the stain of failure. 
Since the Royal Navy was the best in the world, Coleman is convinced from the start that members of the Royal Navy were superior to all others and therefore could neither be cannibals nor insane. For him, this is simply unthinkable. What must not be, cannot be. His reconstruction presented in the last hundred pages of the book is therefore based on these three premises rather than on the sources and available artifacts. 

For Coleman, cannibalism is as unthinkable among civilized Englishmen as it was for the increasingly socially pivotal evangelical upper-middle class from the mid-19th century onwards. That is why the Arctic explorer John Rae, the bearer of the unbelievable news, is also for him “a charlatan with a poisonous hatred of the Royal Navy”. As evidence of this, he cites above all that the Hudson Bay Company man Rae considered Royal Navy surgeon Sir John Richardson, his companion on the overland search for John Franklin, to lack vigour and be overweight and the sailors under his command to be “most awkward, lazy and careless”. This, of course, amounts to sacrilege for Coleman, who does not want to see that the seamen accustomed to ships certainly had problems with the unfamiliar demands of overland travel, while Rae had the wrong expectations. By the same argument, Cameron Treleaven would also have to be accused of hating the Navy after the joint expedition with Coleman, for in some ways this expedition mirrors the image Coleman has of Rae and Richardson. While the older Coleman was running out of breath, the younger and fitter Treleaven dashed ahead, which Coleman again found strange, reckless and careless, while at the same time criticizing the Canadian for sleeping longer than he did. Here, too, different worlds had collided and not for the first time one has the feeling that the author is projecting his own experiences and ideas back into the past. 

But since Coleman cannot deny, for example, the cut marks found on the bones of some of Franklin's men, he not only tries to discredit the work of the forensic anthropologists and archaeologists, but also declares them to be proof that the sailors were treacherously massacred by the warlike Inuit, which in turn would even be confirmed by reports from the Inuit themselves. This, however, puts Coleman in trouble more than once. Since he considers the British to be not only morally but also technically superior, which they actually were, they must have been so weakened by scurvy that they could no longer defend themselves properly. As a counter-argument against the cannibalism thesis, however, he had previously argued that it had not been necessary to eat each other at all because there was enough food. After all, he himself had encountered plenty of game on King William Island. Apart from the fact that he ignores the completely different climatic conditions at the time, one wonders why Franklin’s men should have suffered so severely from scurvy in the first place. Although he otherwise condemns the Inuit tradition as unbelievable, since they were flatterers and liars – which his own experiences have confirmed, he suggests – he has to give credence to one story at least, because it seems to support his own thesis of Franklin's men being massacred by the Inuit. The story of Adam Beck, the Inuit interpreter of one of the later search expeditions, who claims to have heard about this massacre from the Inuit near Cape York in Northwest Greenland and reported this to the British. But this contradicts Coleman's claim that the Inuit did everything they could to keep this story secret out of a sense of guilt and to keep the search parties away from the site of the event. So Coleman comes up with an explanation, claiming that in order to prevent the ships from sailing on and to keep them in Greenland as long as possible so that his people could continue to trade lucratively with the British, Beck simply transferred the story, which was common knowledge among the Inuit, from King William Island to Cape York. Except that Beck came from southern Greenland and the Inuit from the northwest were no more his people than those beyond Baffin Bay. But from a colonial point of view this is irrelevant, for most 19th century Britons these Eskimos were all the same anyway and related to each other – this obviously did not change for Coleman 170 years later, even if he himself would probably resist being called a Scottish Highlander. 

None of this is convincing, but for Coleman it offers a satisfactory explanation for the demise of the expedition, because a fault of their own, as has been discussed by historians and other scientists since the 1980s, is ruled out for Coleman from the very beginning, as is the fact that the expedition is supposed to have perished from lead poisoning, because one of the side effects of lead poisoning is mental confusion and that cannot and must not be.

In his attempt to discredit the scientists and expose their alleged conspiracy, Coleman does not even notice how much he is preaching to the converted. The thesis of lead poisoning as the main reason for the decline of the Franklin Expedition is indeed, as Coleman has correctly observed, no longer tenable. But while this is just a good example of how a scholarly debate plays out over decades, Coleman sees it as a conspiracy of scientists using the Franklin Expedition and the lead poisoning hypothesis as a way to advance their careers. However, if you look at the biographies of the people the author accuses, you quickly see that this is not the case, at least not among the scientists. 
But anyway, the book more or less openly denies the competence of the scientists, since they are not prepared to accept the author’s claim that the place he discovered was Franklin's grave and that the two hills behind it were burial mounds raised by Franklin's men. Even though after his third expedition he declared that he had never claimed that it was Franklin's grave and now repeats this in the corresponding chapter, at the beginning and at the end of his book he now claims again that it possibly is Franklin's grave unless, that is, the captain lies in one of the burial mounds. 

Coleman constantly contradicts himself, and the reader's confusion reaches a climax in the search for the answer as to what Coleman thinks is in the mounds, let alone how and why they were erected.
Even more absurd, however, is his political conspiracy theory: No one disputes that the then Canadian prime minister, Stephen Harper, used the discovery of HMS Erebus in 2014 for political purposes to bolster Canada's claim to the Northwest Passage in light of the disagreement with the US over whether it is an inland waterway or an international passage, and Russian claims in the Arctic. To assume for political reasons, that the ship is not even where it is claimed to be, or that it is not HMS Erebus at all, seems absurd, but is Coleman's explanation for the ships not being where he thinks they should be. The most he is willing to concede is that they could have drifted to where they are now. His explanation is even less convincing then Roobol’s. Coleman simply declares it to be impossible that they could have been manned again and sailed there, since all 60 men of the crew were needed to sail the ships. This too is incorrect. HMS Hecla, a sister ship of the Erebus, for example, was sailed from the west coast of Africa to St Helena by so few men that when she arrived at the island she was thought to be a ghost ship, for yellow fever had claimed almost the entire crew. Having subsequently been sold by the navy, she returned to the Arctic as a whaler with her rigging unchanged but less than half the number of men than at the time she had sailed through the Arctic under Edward Parry's command. With the claim that all hands were necessary to sail the ship, Coleman shows that even in an area in which he claims to be an expert – that of the Royal Navy – he does not really know his way around, at least not if it comes Lord Nelson's Navy, though he can rightly claim to have served on Nelson's flagship. But HMS Victory is now a museum ship lying idle in the harbour. He never seems to have sailed on a real sailing ship, otherwise he would know that his claim, like so much of the last part of this book, is not true. While John Roobol's theories are on shaky ground, Ernest Coleman's theories become more and more inconsistent and outlandish, so that one cannot really take them seriously. 

As for the traces Coleman found on King William Island, one can certainly debate whether they are indeed human traces and if so, whether they could actually have come from Franklin's expedition. The human brain automatically tries to identify familiar patterns in chaotic images so that humans are better able to orient themselves, always expecting to see what is most familiar to them. Perhaps this is the very reason why Ernest Coleman saw navigational aids, anchors, boats or graves in the rubble. But maybe there is indeed more to see. Since he not only described what he saw in the first part of his book, but also photographed it, I can only recommend that readers look at the pictures in the book before reading the captions and ask themselves: What am I seeing? This helps at least a little bit not to lose one's orientation in this book as many have done on King William Island, and to be able to form one's own picture more easily in the end. 

What remains of these two books, only time will tell. They are surely not what their authors want them to be: the mystery’s solution. Most likely we will never know in every detail, what happened on King William Island back then, but every book sparks the imagination and keeps the discussion going.


Trapped. A Novel, by John Roobol.
Canterbury/Kent, The Conrad Press, 2019.

Encounters on the Passage: Inuit Meet the Explorers, by Dorothy Harley Eber. University of Toronto Press, 2008. 

Finding Franklin. The untold story of a 165-year search, by Russell A. Potter. Montréal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2016.

Sir John Franklin's Last Arctic Expedition: A Chapter in the History of the Royal Navy, by Richard J. Cyriax. Plaistow and Sutton Coldfield: The Arctic Press,1997. (reprint).

Strangers Among Us, by David C. Woodman. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1995. 

Unravelling the Franklin Mystery: Inuit Testimony, by David C. Woodman. Montréal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1991; 2015. 

Sir John Franklin Was Here! by Wayne Davidson (archive)

Monday, April 26, 2021

Icebound in the Arctic: The Mystery of Captain Francis Crozier and the Franklin Expedition

Icebound in the Arctic:
The Mystery of Captain Francis Crozier and the Franklin Expedition

by Michael Smith

Dublin: The O'Brien Press, 2021

$22.99 (US), £12.16 (UK), €20.67 (EU)

It's been fifteen years since Michael Smith's original biography of Francis Crozier -- subtitled Last Man Standing -- was published, and of course I reviewed it here. So much has happened since -- not only with the discoveries of Erebus (in 2014) and Terror (2016), but also with new archaeological and scholarly work, not to mention the touring Death in the Ice exhibition, that a revisiting of Crozier's life and career seems very timely indeed. The fact that the original book has now become scarce -- copies, when they can be found at all, sell for upwards of $200 -- gives those of us without deep pockets a second reason to celebrate this expanded and retitled biography.

The chapters and sections here build on those of the original edition; the original chapters are both updated and augmented, and new chapters have been added. There's also a fair amount of new illustrative material -- after all, the book would seem incomplete without (for example) a photograph of Crozier's desk, as found by Parks Canada's ROV. The only known photograph of Lady Franklin -- which I uncovered in 2012 -- is also reproduced here. Another welcome addition is the image of the alabaster bust of Crozier sculpted in Florence in 1845, but not hitherto published. And lastly, most -- though not quite all -- of the excellent maps are retained, with a new one, showing the locations at which both ships were found, added.

There's no better portrait of Francis Crozier than the one Smith gives us -- with all his bright and cloudy moments interwoven. At the same time, there are aspects of his life and achievements that seem contradictory -- he had enormous energy and tenacity, his brilliant scientific work -- and yet he also had his bouts of melancholy, his reluctance to be first-in-command. Smith's approach to this is to take each of the various issues ad sertiatim, relying on alternating dark and light strokes in his assessment of Crozier's character. 

This strategy works admirably, although personally I felt that some of the darker strokes have too grim a feel to them -- I felt this particularly in Chapter 14, 'I Am Not Equal to the Hardship." This phrase comes from one of Crozier's letters, and the key word, "hardship," can also be interpreted as "leadership." It certainly makes, I think, more sense as "leadership," since Crozier in his letters to James Clark Ross when he volunteered his services sounds enthusiastic and confident. The hardship would have been the same no matter what his position, and certainly he knew of it and accepted it; his ability to lead was what he doubted. And of course, the final irony was that, scarcely two years into their voyage, the death of Franklin propelled him to the leadership of the expedition anyway.

The major new chapter is the last, "Lost and Found," which recounts, as promised on the cover, the "sensational discovery of the ships." It's a dramatic and succinct account, and the best so far to have appeared in book form. My only criticism is that Smith assumes both ships drifted, unpiloted, to their respective positions; we do not yet have firm evidence one way or another, and stating it as simple fact obscures this important uncertainty. Certainly with the Terror, neatly parked in what later became its eponymous bay, there's some thought that she was directed to this safer harbor by Crozier himself.

It's in this last chapter, only, that I missed somewhat the presence of color in the illustrations; in black-and-white, Crozier's desk seems blurry rather than draped, as it is, in the greenish murk of the captain's great room. But this is a minor criticism; all the many merits of the original edition are here, and there are numerous improvements and expansions.

So let us welcome this new edition, and the strong, contrasted portrait of Crozier's career that it brings. It bears clear witness to (as the Crozier memorial in Banbridge puts it) to his "unbending integrity and truthfulness" as well as to his "extreme amiability"-- and, as was Crozier himself, Smith's book is very good company indeed.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

The Hands' Measure

The Hands’ Measure: Essays Honouring Leah Aksaajuq Otak’s Contribution to Arctic Science.

Edited by John MacDonald and Nancy Wachowich

Iqaluit: Nunavut Arctic College Media, 2018. 391 pages.

Reviewed by Kenn Harper

The Hands’ Measure, as its subtitle makes clear, is a book honouring the contributions of the late Leah Aksaajuq Otak of Igloolik, Nunavut. It is not a biography of Leah, but rather a collection of essays by Northern scholars – or scholars interested in the North – who have been inspired by Leah, her work, and her enthusiasm.

A few of the essays – those by John MacDonald (Stories and Representations: Two Centuries of Narrating Amitturmiut History; Leah Aksaajuq Otak: A Life in Language; and Reflections on a Flag), Sylvie LeBlanc (Our Old Sod House), Nancy Wachowich (Leah Aksaajuq Otak: The Measure of a Stitch and the Art of Translation), Noah Richler (Sunrise, Stories, and Snowhouses: A Conversation with Leah Otak), and  J.C.H. King (Inuit Lives and Arctic Legacies: Leah Otak, Edward Parry, and Igloolik)– talk the most about Leah as a person, her interests, and her life history, including her education and her work. These are the most personal contributions. 

Two others by Inuit contributors – Eva Aariak (A Stitch in Time: Inuktut, Sewing, and Self-Discovery), and George Qulaut (Capturing Souls: Beginnings of Oral History Work in Igloolik) – address two of the subjects most dear to Leah – language and its proper usage (in Eva’s essay) and oral history (in George’s chapter). 

Two contributions treat the Igloolik Oral History Project as a resource and discuss its practical applications (Jack Hicks – “Once in a While”: The Igloolik Oral History Project as a Resource with Which to Understand Suicidal Behaviour in Historic Inuit Society; and Sheena Kennedy Dalseg – Reclaiming the Past and Reimagining the Future: The Igloolik Oral History Project, Education, and Community Development).

Still others relate less, or not at all, to Leah directly, but are Igloolik-centric in their research and discussions. These are the contributions by Claudio Aporta (Living, Travelling, Sharing: How the Land Permeates the Town through Stories), Willem Rasing (Encounters: Reflections on Anthropology and Cultural Brokers), and Susan Rowley (Ujakkat: Iglulingmiut Geology).

Some contributions are general in their scope, but are inspired by Leah’s work and enthusiasm. These are chapters by Hugh Brody (The People’s Land: The Film), Louis-Jacques Dorais (A Marriage in Nunavik), Bernadette Driscoll Engelstad (Restoring an Ancestral Legacy: Museum Collections, Inuit Clothing, and Communities), and Birgit Pauksztat (“Tass’ Nuann’!”: Tradition, Sports, and Friendship at the Kayak Club Nuuk).

Leah Otak believed that the emphasis of the Igloolik Oral History Project, in which she was a participant for many years, should be on the proper use of language. In the words of John MacDonald, “the information gathered in the interview was, to some extent, secondary to the quality and sophistication of the language used to convey the information.” Leah herself said, “Preserving oral histories is so important for future generations, because our language is changing fast. It’s beginning to be like English [in] structure…. But if people get interested, they can use the oral histories to learn – not just words but how [elders] would express themselves.”
Leah had a passion for word collecting. Like a true lexicographer, she obsessively wrote down new words she encountered wherever she was, and entered them in a vocabulary list she compiled once she was back home.

She was critical of the government’s approach to teaching Inuktitut. “In teacher training, no one monitors how Inuktitut is taught. No one is monitoring how well the teachers are speaking. The government solution comforts themselves – but it’s not Inuktitut…. Kids love to learn their language … but we’re not providing them with good quality education.”

Leah constantly showed empathy for the elders of Nunavut’s communities. Speaking of the old days of camp life, she juxtaposed it with the supposedly easier life in northern settlements today, a life, ironically, in which elders watch the rapid erosion of their culture and language and love grandchildren with whom they increasingly do not share a language. Leah claimed that “for the elders it wasn’t a struggle at all, not like they are struggling today.”

Nancy Wachowich describes Leah as a translator, but a translator not only of words, but also of concepts, of ways of seeing the world; in that sense she was a bridge between cultures. “She found ways to translate Inuit and Western knowledge traditions, working across both sides of the cultural divide.” Through her work at the science research centre in Igloolik, she brought southern researchers together with the community and its elders. Wachowich refers to Leah’s work as “cultural documentation and cultural translation.”

Nunavut Arctic College Media has done an admirable job in putting together a quality trade paperback book. It’s a big book, 391 pages, well bound. My only criticism is that it would have benefited by the inclusion of a map.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must state that I contributed one chapter to the volume (Inuit Oral History: Statements and Testimony in Criminal Investigations – The Case of the Killing of Robert Janes).

Saturday, October 24, 2020

What I Remember, What I Know

What I Remember, What I Know: The Life of a High Arctic Exile

By Larry Audlaluk

Iqaluit: Inhabit Media, 2020

Reviewed by Russell A. Potter

When I heard that Larry Audlaluk had written a memoir, I knew at once that I wanted to read it. I'd met Larry on a visit to Grise Fiord in 2017, and his account of his and his family's experience as High Arctic Exiles was an electrifying one. You could tell at once that he was a born storyteller, and I knew a book by him would be one worth reading.

For those who don't know the story, the High Arctic Exiles were a group of Inuit families, mostly from Inukjuak on the eastern shores of Hudson Bay, but also including two families from Pond Inlet on northern Baffin Island, who were taken from their homes to be resettled in two places: Resolute Bay on Cornwallis Island and a site on Ellesmere Island's Lindstrom Peninsula, a day's journey from the RCMP post at Craig Harbor (the final move to Grise Fiord came several years later). The families were persuaded by RCMP and other officials that their new homes would be places of abundance, with much game, and that the government would provide them with equipment, such as boats, that they needed to hunt.

Larry tells the story as only he can; although at the time of the relocation he was only two years old, he  experienced these years of exile as his years of childhood and growing up, always listening the stories of his parents and elders. Unbeknownst to these Inuit, they were pawns in a government scheme, dreamed up by bureaucrats who had little idea of how they lived. Following a 1939 court ruling that the Inuit, like First Nations people, were to be the responsibility of the government, Canada had begun to put into place a structure of "management" that often regarded the Inuit more as problems than as people. The fact that Inuit in Inukjuak and other areas further north along the Ungava Peninsula were accepting government assistance at a higher rate than had been anticipated led the government to believe they were becoming "dependent" and that the Ungava area was "overpopulated." Based on these assumptions, they decided that moving the Inuit much further north would solve these nonexistent problems; what's more, having permanent settlements north of Lancaster Sound would reinforce the Canadian presence in the Arctic islands, particularly Ellesmere.

The government also assumed, without any understanding of the type of game and other food sources available, that Inuit wold be able to quickly adjust to their new homes. The Inuit, told that they would be provided with boats and other equipment, packed lightly and were completely unprepared for their isolated new homesteads in a far colder and unfamiliar land. Their disappointment, and the terrible struggle to survive, took an immediate toll on Larry's father, Akeeaktashuk. He began to have fainting spells, and with the last of these, he literally fell down and died. Larry, writing as an adult, understands why, but as a child this loss, and the loss of so many others who had come trusting the promises of the Qallunaat, took an incomprehensible toll on his childhood.

Larry recounts this central story with extraordinary candor and feeling -- but what surprised me most in reading his book was how many other kinds of stories he had to tell. You sense at once what a spirited child, and a lively youth, he was -- every difficulty of life, from being sent to a TB hospital in Québec, to his experience with the residential school system, to the inevitable conflicting pulls that left him, as he puts it, "living in two worlds -- he faces with determination. There were some missteps -- as an older man looking back on the errors of his youth, he is forgiving -- and we his readers are inclined to forgive as well.

If those interested in the modern history of the Inuit people of eastern Canada were to read just one book on the subject, Larry Audlaluk's What I Remember, What I Know, should be it. His life is representative of the experience of so many Inuit of his generation, and his tenacity, forthrightness, and hard-earned wisdom illuminate not only this past, but show the way to a better future to come. 

My only criticism -- and it is very slight -- of the book is that the publisher decided to eschew notes, and that the list of place and personal names doesn't always reference the standard forms, so that readers hearing (for instance) of Inujjuak may not realize that this is the same as Inukjuak. Nevertheless, Larry's voice rings clear and strong throughout, never more so than in the last line of the book: "We are here to stay."

Monday, January 6, 2020

Adventures in Polar Reading

Adventures in Polar Reading: The Book Cultures of High Latitudes

by David H. Stam, with Deirdre C. Stam

New York: The Grolier Club, $40.00

Reviewed by Russell A. Potter

Anyone with more than a passing interest in books and polar expeditions will have long been familiar with the extraordinary work of David H. Stam. He has reconstructed the catalogues of some of the world's most remote libraries, those located aboard the ships, or in the encampments, of polar expeditions. Along the way, he has also probed the social and psychological value of such remote reading, including the appetite for print which led many expeditions to produce their own books and periodicals. If we are what we read, then it would seem that explorers -- once their reference reading is set aside -- seem to have taken particular pleasure in fiction; among their most frequently cherished volumes have been Dickens's Bleak House, Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield, and Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (a fact which surely would have gratified its author, who as a child was fascinated with Arctic explorers).

Adventures in Polar Reading is, in physical form, an embodied curriculum vitæ of Stam's work over these past two decades, arranged so as to bring us along in his venturesome company, and partake of the pleasure of discoveries made along the way. It begins with a short recursus of Stam's fascination with his subject, sprinkled with witty asides and reflections that set the tone for what's to come. We then commence with an early reflection of his on the function of reading among historical expeditions, on the "silent friends" whose presence proved such a comfort to those denied any human company beyond their own. This flows quite perfectly into a chapter on the libraries of such expeditions; between the two, we learn of Robert Bartlett's fondness for The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and how Julius Payer reveled in his library, which included Paradise Lost, Shakespeare, and "a whole tribe of romances, which were read with never-ending delight." Most poignantly, we learn that Dr. Edward Wilson (one of Scott's comrades who died with him) was reading and re-reading Tennyson's In Memoriam while on their southern march, remarking that "it makes me feel that if the end comes to me here or hereabout there will be no great time for Ory to sorrow. All will be as it is meant to be."1

In another, perhaps retroactively more sombre moment, we eavesdrop on the survivors of the Greely expedition, who in coming upon a small cache of lemons wrapped in newspapers, savored the news even more than the lemons, carefully unwrapping each one and flattening and drying the paper. In his diary, second-in-command David Brainard described the scene: "The first of a series of very pleasant entertainments took place to-night. The scraps of newspapers were read aloud for fifteen minutes by Rice [the expedition's photographer who died later on the journey] just after dinner. This will be repeated every night until all are read."

Stam's chapters are sprinkled with such revelatory gems, even as they advance the theme of polar reading in all its aspects: the battered books of Fort Conger, poignantly damaged not by Arctic conditions but by a leaky library roof in Peary's Maine estate; an accounting of the role of newspapers and periodicals in polar reading, and a detailed accounting of the "Seaman's Friend Society" and their pre-assembled libraries of self-improvement and religious tracts in duodecimo. Two of the best-known and most substantial expedition libraries then receive extensive treatment: that of Admiral Byrd at "Little America" in Antarctica, and that of Shackleton's Endurance. The volume concludes with a touching Quo Vadis? -- whither then? -- in which Stam surveys the array of thematic and research topics yet to be fully explored by polar librarians and researchers.

As is to be expected in a volume published under the auspices of the Grolier Club in New York City, Adventures in Polar Reading is a strikingly handsome volume, sturdily bound in cloth boards, and copiously illustrated. No collection of Arctic or Antarctic books worth its salt -- or, perhaps I should say, worth its ice -- should be without it.

1 Ory was Oriana, Wilson's wife.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Hunters on the Track

Hunters on the track: William Penny and the search for Franklin

By W. Gillies Ross

Montreal & Kingston; McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019

Reviewed by Willam Barr

Gil Ross has published extensively on the history of whaling, both in Hudson Bay and inn Davis Strait/Baffin Bay. In this, his latest book, he focusses on one of the most successful Scottish whaling captains, William Penny Jr., and on his crucial role in one of the most complex searches for the missing Franklin expedition, that of 1850-51.

Born in Peterhead on 12 July 1809, the son of whaling captain William Penny Sr., William Jr. subsequently moved with his family to Aberdeen.  At the age of 12 he made his first whaling voyage on board his father’s ship Alert, to the Greenland Sea. By 1829 he was serving as mate on board a whaling ship bound for Davis Strait and by 1835 had his first command, the Neptune of Aberdeen. Thus by 1845 he was a very experienced (and very successful) whaling captain.  It was in that year that Captain Sir John Franklin sailed from the Thames with two ships, HMS Erebus and Terror bound for what is now the Canadian Arctic in search of the Northwest Passage. With an initial complement of 134 men, after five had been invalided back to England from Greenland the final tally of the crews of the  two ships was 129. They were encountered by two whaling vessels in Baffin Bay, whose men were the last Europeans to see the ships and their crews alive.

At first sight Franklin’s task was quite a simple one.  He was to link up the major west-channel of Parry Channel (Lancaster Sound, Barrow Strait, Viscount Melville Sound, M’Clure Strait) discovered by William Edward Parry in 1819-1820, with the waterway paralleling the mainland coast, which he explored in 1821, followed by Dr. John Richardson in 1826 and by Peter Warren Dease and Thomas Simpson in 1838-39. Franklin was instructed to proceed to Cape Walker, sighted by Parry (then thought to be the northeastern cape of Prince of Wales Island, but in fact that of Russell Island) and “to penetrate to the southward and westward in a course as direct towards Behring’s Strait as the position and extent of the ice, or the existence of land, at present unknown, may admit." In fact a route due south from Cape Walker would intersect with Dease and Simpson’s route at Cape Herschel in just 580 km.  Franklin’s instructions also suggested, however,  that if a southerly route were impracticable he should  attempt to penetrate north via Wellington Channel between Devon and Cornwallis Islands.

Given the known provisioning of Franklin’s ships, no particular concern was felt in England when there was no word from them in 1846.  But by the spring of 1847 some degree of anxiety had started to be felt. On his own initiative William Penny, by then in command of St. Andrew, made an attempt to penetrate into Lancaster Sound in the hope of searching for Franklin but was foiled by foul winds and heavy seas and was unable to penetrate beyond 78° W. i.e.  just off the entrance to Lancaster Sound. His was the first known attempt at making contact with the missing expedition, and led naturally to Penny’s subsequent  role in the massive search  in 1850-51  which represents the major theme of Gil Ross’s book.

In 1848 the first of the Admiralty’s expeditions in search of Franklin was dispatched to Baffin Bay, commanded by Captain Sir James Clark Ross in HMS Enterprise and Investigator. Seriously delayed by ice in Baffin Bay, heavy ice prevented them from penetrating far into Lancaster Sound, and they wintered at Port Leopold on northeastern Somerset Island.  In the spring of 1849 sledging parties travelling around parts of Somerset Island found no traces of the Franklin expedition.

Soon after William Penny’s return to his home port of  Dundee in the autumn of 1849, he received a visit from Lady Franklin, Franklin’s wife (or by then , in fact, widow). She asked Penny if he would be interested in commanding a search expedition, either a naval expedition or one sponsored by herself. Penny enthusiastically agreed in principle.

As a result Penny became an important player in a remarkable concentration of ships and effort in the search for Franklin which headed for Davis Strait and Baffin Bay in the spring of 1850.   Penny was in charge of two vessels, the brigs Lady Franklin and Sophia (the latter commanded by Alexander Stewart).  The Admiralty dispatched four vessels: the sailing vessels Resolute and Assistance and the steam tenders, Intrepid and Pioneer, under the overall command of Captain Horatio Austin, the other commanders being Erasmus Ommanney (Assistance), John Cator (Intrepid) and Sherard Osborn (Pioneer); a further vessel sponsored by Lady Franklin – Prince Albert, commanded by Charles Forsyth; the brig Felix, commanded by the septuagenarian Sir John Ross,  and  towing a small yacht, Mary; and finally  an American contribution, the USS Advance and Rescue (Edwin De Haven and Samuel Griffin, respectively) sponsored by the New York merchant and ship owner Henry Grinnell.

As Gil Ross has presented in detail, all of these vessels encountered heavy ice in Baffin Bay and especially Melville Bay, and while there was some collaboration between the different expeditions (e.g. the steam tenders towing various of the other expeditions’ vessels), there was absolutely no cohesive plan. Significantly, at Upernavik Penny was able to recruit the Dane Johan Christian Petersen, who joined Lady Franklin, complete with a team of sledge dogs. All the ships reached the North Water safely then swung west, south, then west into Lancaster Sound – a total of 10 ships and over 300 men. Assistance and Intrepid were the first to reach Beechey Island a small island joined to the southeast coast of Devon Island by a tombolo, partially submerged at high tides.  At Cape Riley, across Erebus and Terror Bay from Beechey Island Ommanney and Cator found clear evidence of a European tented camp, and then a large cairn on the summit of Beechey Island. When they dismantled it they were puzzled and disappointed to find no messages.   Ommanney and Cator then continued west across Wellington Channel to Cornwallis Island without noticing the graves of three members of the Franklin expedition and a wide scatter of  various clear signs that Erebus and Terror had wintered here. These were later discovered by  parties from Penny’s, Stewart’s, Ross’s and De Haven’s and Griffin’s ships, anchored in Union Bay, on the west side of Beechey Island. But once again no message was found to indicate where Erebus and Terror had headed after wintering here.

Austin’s four ships, Penny’s two vessels, the two American ships  and Ross’s Felix then headed across Wellington Channel and along the south coast of Cornwallis Island.  Subsequently Austin’s ships went into winter quarters off the northeast corner of Griffith Island while Penny’s vessels and Ross’s Felix found more secure winter quarters in Assistance Bay on the south coast of Cornwallis  Island. Rescue and Advance, which were not equipped or provisioned for wintering, started back east towards Baffin Bay.

After a relatively  uneventful wintering, Austin and Penny agreed that in the spring that while  Ommanney searched both coasts of Prince of Wales Island as far south as possible and McClintock sledged westwards along Parry Channel, Penny would head northwards along Wellington Channel. On 17 April 1851 Penny’s and Stewart’s men hauling six sledges set off eastwards to Cape Hotham then north along the western shore of Wellington Channel, followed by Penny and Petersen with the latter’s dog team next day.  Just over a week later, having covered 45 miles, on finding that stoves and kettles were inadequate, that some of the sledges needed to be altered, and that the fuel supply would not last much longer, Penny decided to turn back.  While some of the men were suffering from snow-blindness, frostbite had not caused any serious problems.

After resting for ten days on 6 May Penny and his men set off again. Petersen and Penny again drove dog sledges. While three sledges turned east across Wellington Chanel to search the west coast of Devon Island, Penny and Petersen, with two man-hauled sledges continued north. From the northern tip of Cornwallis Island they crossed on the ice to an island which Penny named Hamilton Island (now Baillie-Hamilton Island). Beyond its northern tip, which Penny named Point Surprise, he discovered a wide area of open water, which he named Queen Victoria  Channel. Starting back south on 17 May the two dog teams reached the ships on the 20th and the man-hauled sledges somewhat later. Penny was determined to haul a boat north on a sledge to explore the open water he had discovered. Visiting Griffith Island to inform Austin of his discoveries and to ask him for the loan of some men to help haul a boat north, Penny was infuriated when Austin refused this request.

On 4 June a party of 15 men set off hauling a whaleboat on a specially-designed sledge.  Although the melt was well under way, which meant slush or pools of melt-water on the sea ice, on 18 June the sledge haulers reached open water. Penny launched the boat and loaded it with provisions and gear. With seven men he put to sea, continuing north along the east coast of Cornwallis Island. Beyond Hamilton Island Penny discovered several more islands, including  Baring Island and Dundas Island and, to the north, land which Penny named Prince Albert Land, in fact part of Devon island. A strait which was later named Penny Strait extended to the horizon to the northwest.  This wide expanse of open water stretching north reinforced Penny’s belief in the existence of an Open Polar Sea – a belief which ws widely held at the time, and would not be abandoned until Fridtjof Nansen’s trans-Arctic ice-drift in Fram in 1893-96. Despite a lack of  solid evidence, apart from a small piece of elm wood which he found, Penny was now convinced that this was the route which had been taken by Franklin’s ships.  Returning south to where they had launched the boat, Penny abandoned boat and sledge and he and his men walked back to Assistance Bay.

By 11 August the ice had cleared out of Assistance Bay and on that date Lady Franklin, Sophia and Felix were joined by Resolute, Assistance, Pioneer and Intrepid. Having determined by an extensive series of man-hauled sledge journeys that there was no sign of Franklin’s ships to the south, southwest or west of Griffith Island, Austin wanted to head for home but needed Penny’s assurance that there ws no point in any further searches north via Wellington Channel. Relations between the two men had already become fraught and now Austin precipitated a bitter argument by demanding that Penny provide him with a statement to that effect in writing. All six ships, plus Ross’s Felix then started for home, although  their captains were leaving themselves open to criticism for returning after only one wintering. Penny reached Aberdeen on 10 September then travelled south by express train to London.

Starting on 22 October an official inquiry was now held  to investigate whether Austin and Penny had been justified in returning after only one wintering.  The two men had to face a committee consisting of five naval officers.   A crucial point at issue was whether or not Penny had asked Austin for the “loan” of one of his steamers towards the end of the season to investigate Wellington Channel, Queen Victoria Channel and Penny Strait further; this would have indicated that Penny felt that there might be justification for a further wintering. Austin had denied his request. But now he declared that Penny had made no such request.  Although Penny was supported by Stewart, and even by some of Austin’s officers who had heard of the exchange about the loan of a steamer, the members of the committee sided with Austin. Their final verdict was that both Austin and Penny had been justified in returning after only one winter.

This skeletal outline will provide some idea of the major topics covered in Ross’s book. But there are a number of wide-ranging sub-plots which I have not mentioned.  One of these, to which an entire chapter is devoted is the remarkable ice-drift of the American vessels, Advance and Rescue, totally unprepared for a wintering, over the winter of 1850-51.  In September they became beset in the ice and drifted north along Wellington Channel to within sight of land which they named Grinnell Land (later seen and named Prince Albert Land by Penny), then back south along Wellington Channel, east down Lancaster Sound and south for the full length of Baffin Bay and Davis Strait to beyond Cape Dyer before the ice broke up to release them. Other sub-plots covered in less detail include the belief in the Open Polar Sea, a history of the Royal Navy’s issue of a rum ration, the use (by Sir John Ross) of homing pigeons, and the use of balloons to try to contact the missing Franklin expedition.

With Hunters on the Track, Ross has crafted the first detailed, comprehensive account of one of the most far-reaching searches for the missing Franklin expedition, with particular emphasis on the crucial role played in it by whaling captain William Penny.  The list of at least 15 archival repositories in the Notes and Bibliography, gives some idea of the author’s thoroughness and dedication to his research. Ross’s style is very readable and entertaining and the text is sometimes leavened with a touch of humour. For example he quotes Cator’s description of the drunken progress of Ommanney and some of his officers staggering back to their own ship from the Intrepid on Christmas Eve, 1850, in nautical terms: “making tacks and stern boards and heaving-to, tumbling about the snow hummocks” (p. 281).

The book is enhanced by a small but important selection of illustrations. They include Stephen Pearce’s portrait of William Penny, an aerial photo which reveals wonderfully clearly  Beechey Island, Union Bay, Erebus and Terror Bay and Cape Riley, and also two paintings by of Canadian geologist and artist, Maurice Haycock, those of Penny’s abandoned boat (as seen in 1974) and the graves on Beechey Island.   Unfortunately, however the maps are frustratingly inadequate particularly in terms of the paucity of place names.  Some measure of the seriousness of the problem is that neither of the wintering sites (Griffith Island and Assistance Bay) is named on any of the maps. The mismatch between the high caliber of the research and writing and the  low quality of the cartography is baffling. 

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Split Tooth

Split Tooth

by Tanya Tagaq

Viking, $24.95

Reviewed by Paddy Eason

It's my impression that many readers of the Arctic Book Review are seeking stirring tales of exploration from long ago. On that basis, this book - which contains enthusiastic teenage solvent abuse, erotic encounters with wild animals and gleeful retribution against human bullies and predators - may not be everyone's cup of tea. For me, though, it's one of the most impressive books I have read in years.

Author Tanya Tagaq’s Wikipedia page describes her as a “Canadian Inuk throat singer from Cambridge Bay (Iqaluktuutiaq), Nunavut, Canada.” Tagaq has released four solo albums of increasing artistic range and ferocity, has collaborated with Bjork and the Kronos Quartet, tours worldwide, is an accomplished painter and an outspoken advocate for indigenous rights and climate activism. It would be no exaggeration to say that she's an Inuit superstar. This is her first book.

Split Tooth is a novel, with frequent nods to memoir, poetry, and traditional tales. At times, to this reader from a temperate clime, the book reads like science fiction or horror: encounters with the Northern Lights, journeys by snowmobile over frozen seas, battles with malignant spirits and musings on quantum physics. But at its icy, fiery heart, this is a book about female puberty.

The unnamed protagonist, when we first meet her, is an eleven-year-old girl living in a small village by Cambridge Bay in the High Arctic. Awkward, smart, and not particularly popular, she spends the long days and long nights in her home town negotiating the universally recognizable childhood assault course of friends, bullies, teachers, neighbors and relatives, while at the same time wishing she had ‘actual breasts’. Alongside this familiar-yet-unfamiliar narrative, there runs a strand of poetry, blocks of text in Inuktitut syllabics, and excellent pop culture illustrations (by Jaime Hernandez.)

Some of the events described or alluded to are shocking. Tagaq certainly pulls no punches. This is not the Arctic wonderland of noble natives that some readers may expect. The first sentence of the book is “Sometimes we would hide in the closet when the drunks came home from the bar.” Alcohol seems mostly for the adults and their tedious rowdy house parties - to be avoided. Our hero and her pals start with cigarette ends and pilfered joints, moving up to butane, rubber cement and gasoline huffed out of snowmobiles. What else is there to do when night and day have no meaning, nothing seems worth learning and the adults are either passed out from booze or away hunting? We learn, as our young hero does, that loud country music blasting from a house is a warning sign - and this is the kind of shorthand at which Tagaq excels, sketching the line from colonial corruption to child abuse.

Predatory adult males are a daily challenge - the teacher who habitually gropes his pupils under their desks, the relatives who sneak into children’s bedrooms at night. One of the first poems in the book is called "Sternum," and begins as a meditation on the human breastbone and ribcage. The last few lines come with the kind of kick that marks her writing throughout  -
The Human Sternum is used for so many things
Clavicles like handlebars
Ribs like stairs
The sternum is the shield
Even when impaired
Even when it smothers a little girl's face
As the bedsprings squeak
However - and I cannot emphasize this enough - Split Tooth is not a grim, dour book. It is a tragedy and a triumph.

The book's second strand, of poems, dreams and folk tales, initially a kind of counterpoint to the coming-of-age dramas of village life, gradually takes over the life of the book. The day-to-day narrative starts to incorporate brushes with malevolent spirits. Wild animals, such as the fox she encounters beneath her parents’ house while hiding from the school bully, walk into her dreams and begin to demand their due or bestow favor. In a key chapter on which the book’s plot turns, she walks out onto the sea ice one night and has an encounter with the Northern Lights that changes her life. What started out as a funny, harrowing tale of village life for an awkward teenager turns into a psychedelic spiritual ordeal ending up with some extraordinary choices for Tagaq’s young hero. I am being circumspect - this book is a page turner, and I’d really hate to spoil it with any further clues. If you choose to read this book, you will be hanging on by your fingertips by the end.

I wrote above that Split Tooth is about female puberty, but of course, Tagaq's gaze is much wider. She is a canny enough author not to be didactic or obvious, but it's clear that among her targets are colonization, institutional religion, and predatory male sexuality. She finds ways to take them all on, one by one, while keeping the book's narrative arrow flying straight. The collective trauma of her people is lived by this one small teenager. The conclusion feels like an exorcism.

What makes all this work so splendidly, is that Tagaq - and her protagonist - are such perceptive, funny, rational company. The book is sharp and bright as a knife, informed not only by Inuit folktales, but also by 21st century climate politics. Every violent act or thought is balanced with kindness and empathy. The suggestive, elliptical poetry is spiced with a lot of very specific cuss words.

The language is extraordinary. Has there been a better description of the disorientating effect on a community of endless Arctic daylight than “Everyone’s clocks tick sideways”? I felt like applauding at the end of each chapter at the sheer quality of the writing. The book is a firework display.

For anyone who has seen Tagaq as a live musical performer, this may come as no surprise. Having read the physical edition of the book, I went in again to listen to the audio book, read by the author with brief throat-singing interludes between chapters. If I had to choose a format to recommend, it would be the audiobook. The hardback is a lovely object (and there is also a vinyl album of the poems), but the five-hour audio book is another level. It is a performance.

The journey from recording studio to written page hides pitfalls that have tripped many an artist. But this book's icy white covers and red-tipped pages contain wonders. Tagaq writes with clarity, rage, humor and authority. In this book she has created what might be a defining artistic statement of the North. It is an Arctic masterpiece.

Monday, March 25, 2019

The Library of Ice

The Library of Ice: Readings from a Cold Climate

By Nancy Campbell

Scribner, $18.95 (hc); $11.99 (kindle)

Reviewed by P.J. Capelotti

Tucking in to another round of the freely flowing alcohol at last December’s annual Roald Amundsen Memorial Dinner at the Fram Museum in Oslo, there was only one recently published book any of my companions wanted to talk about: the poet-artist Nancy Campbell’s The Library of Ice.  In a warming world, where every Sonny Jim is tweeting up a storm at their latest High Arctic disaster tourism lark, such exuberance manifests every couple of years and one must endure.  Yet there were exclamations such as one has not heard since Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams in 1986 (also published by Scribner).  All agreed that The Library of Ice marked a fundament, the first truly significant cultural signpost of the natural calamity racing at us.

They were right.

It would be facile to suggest that the work should have been directly linked to Lopez with a title such as Arctic Nightmares, because there is so much more at work here than disaster tourism.  The author holds a key to not just a library but a whole associated archive and art gallery the likes of which few writers have ever been able to reveal.  The story centers on the notion that “polar ice is the first archive” and proceeds to carry through the metaphor with a seemingly effortless display that ranges from Inuit mythology to Antarctic ice cores to artifacts in the Pitt Rivers Museum to the Olympic skating routine of Torvill and Dean (and yes, the latter discussion is absolutely transfixing).  It is not effortless, of course, and instead the product of years of careful observation by a poet, writer, translator, sketch artist, and print artist of wondrous sensitivity.

Visiting or doing research in the Arctic forces one into different categories of thoughts.  Most of these, in order for us to make a living, we must discard, and fast.  Campbell shows us what a mistake this is.  Reading the peer notes of the first article on the Arctic I wrote some thirty years ago, one reviewer chastised it for sounding too much like Lopez.  This puzzled me, as I’d spent the previous fifteen years trying to write precisely like him.  But I took heed, rewrote, flattened, polished the science up and toned the flourish down, and so began a more or less dutiful slow crawl up the academic ladder.

Along the way, as I jogged in a straight line down Archaeology Road without my beloved copy of Lopez’s River Notes, I neglected to properly record so many memorable scenes right in front of my eyes: the brilliant maritime archaeologist smoking a pipe while peddling a bicycle at walking speed on the rough dirt road outside of Longyearbyen so that we could have a proper chat about an expedition from the 1890s as I walked alongside, a scene as incongruous as Paul Newman flirting with Katherine Ross on that frontier bicycle in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  Or the many drift artifacts noted but unrecorded on beaches throughout the Arctic, like the German light bulb seen on the north shore of Danskøya, a fragile glass bulb carried to an Arctic shore a hundred kilometers from the nearest lamp (and probably 2,000 kilometers from the lamp it had once been fitted to), an unlikely survivor of forces that could kill a human in seconds.  The Arctic both lifts one’s eyes to take in some of the planet’s most remarkable landscapes at the same time it presents small human connections that are easily ignored or quickly forgotten—while also making sure you maintain a weather eye (and a ready firearm) in case of polar bears.

The Library of Ice, fortunately, never makes this mistake.  No detail is lost or forgotten.  It is, one could argue, the first great literature of the Anthropocene.  If you don’t believe this, go to page 33, where a sentence concludes: “if humans are lucky, there may be more decades ahead.”  Decades.  If we are lucky.  Thus chastened, we embark on a journey around the Radcliffe Camera to the Bodleian to uncover Robert Boyle’s History of Cold.  One imagines John Thaw’s Inspector Morse drinking at The White Horse across the street—a crazy thought until, sure enough, Morse code makes an appearance later in the book.  One searches for the many prophecies in this book just as when listening to the music in Morse, where the composer of the soundtrack, Barrington Pheloung, would telegraph the name of the murderer in code in each episode.

The journey in The Library of Ice is undertaken by a poor pilgrim, with just a few quid for a drink and bed-sit, the very best of a miserable generation of academics bereft of proper positions or funding as the world inexplicably funnels buckets of cash upwards and away from renewable energies, digitization and democratization of archives, the preservation of indigenous lifeways, and a hundred other necessities.  It is therefore an incredibly brave voyage, fearless in its way of postponing the inevitable reckoning of settling down to what used to be called a proper living to record another, larger, global reckoning.  The brilliance of Campbell’s method is a stream of cultural connections tied to the theme of memory and loss: the architecture of the University of Greenland fitted to its surroundings, the ringing of the Terra Nova bell for tea and cakes twice a day at Scott Polar in Cambridge, the crafting the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office from the wreck of HMS Resolute in the Arctic.

Not being an artist, I am not qualified to attest to the descriptions of the wide variety of styles and media employed by the author.  But every note she strikes on the life of a library and archive rat rings true, with only one or two flat notes: 1921 being set in the 19th century, and Knud Rasmussen traveling “eastwards” from Greenland to trace the route of Inuit to Alaska.

But these slips of the fingers do nothing to detract from an author who can range from Mylius-Erichson’s 1902-04 Danish Literary Expedition (scientists needed not apply) to the genius of Halldór Laxness, from the Battle of Vittorio Veneto (into which my own grandfather was drafted but thankfully never showed up, lest someone else undertake this review) to the labyrinth of the Prose Edda, and from Ötzi the Iceman to Vander-Molen’s utterly Vernian attempt to cross Iceland via the Jökulsá á Fjöllum river in an ultralight aeroplane in 1983.  This latter expedition was so endlessly fantastic that it served as one of several inspirations that eventually sent me north.  It was sandwiched between the 1979 publication of Roland Huntford’s Scott and Amundsen and its dramatization by Trevor Griffiths as Judgement over the Dead to its filming in Greenland as the luminous The Last Place on Earth in 1984 and the publication of Lopez’s Arctic Dreams two years later.  How was anyone to avoid a scramble to the Poles with that cultural backdrop?

Still and all, it does bring back another missed pathway: my major professor—a lovely New Zealander and renowned paleoanthropologist working on Pliocene stone tools—telling me way back in 1995 that I needed to apply my Arctic work to this new-fangled idea of global climate change.  I do remember walking from his office and thinking that the old man was crazy: Arctic ice was as permanent as permanent could be.  I couldn’t see where my work could be of any use on that score.

Well.  Twenty-five years later, as Ragnarök approaches, it is up to scholars like Nancy Campbell to record it all before the world melts and the old gods are defeated and washed away.  From behind her carrel in this Library of Ice, Campbell has brilliantly developed the theme of ice as both memory and loss of memory.  Now, for goodness’ sake, someone get her a pint and a very large grant.  That library’s almost gone and it’s not going to read itself.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

White Fox and Icy Seas in the Western Arctic

White Fox and Icy Seas in the Western Arctic: The Fur Trade, Transportation, and Change in the Early Twentieth Century

by John Bockstoce

New Haven: Yale University Press

Reviewed by Kenn Harper

John Bockstoce has devoted his career to researching and documenting whaling and trading activities in the Bering Strait region of the Arctic. His previous books include Whales, Ice and Men: The History of Whaling in the Western Arctic and Furs and Frontiers in the Far North: The Contest among Native and Foreign Nations for the Bering Strait Fur Trade.

The present volume extends and completes this work, bringing its temporal coverage up to World War II, and extending its geographic coverage into the western and central regions of the Canadian Arctic. Indeed, study of the fur trade in the region between Herschel Island and the Boothia Peninsula has been neglected until now.

The focus of this volume is squarely on trapping and trading for the pelt of the white fox, and includes that pursuit by both Native people and immigrant trappers and traders. The geographic scope of the work is vast. In Bockstoce’s terminology, the term Western Arctic includes the land and water of the Chukchi Peninsula in Russia, northern Alaska, the northern Yukon, the Mackenzie River delta, the mainland coast of the western and central Canadian Arctic, and the islands north of that coast. Bockstoce points out, “Within this district the participants in the fur trade included Chukchi, Siberian Yupik, Alaskan Eskimos, Alaskan and Canadian Gwich’in, Canadian Inuvialuit, Inuinnait, Inuit, persons of European descent, Russians, and many other foreign nationalities.”

Bockstoce notes in his preface that he thinks of all these people, both Native and non-Native, as simply “Northerners”. This is a refreshing departure from the new orthodoxy – or the constantly renewing orthodoxy – in which Canada, at least, has relegated the previously acceptable terms “native” and later “aboriginal” to the sidelines in favour of the new flavour of the day – “Indigenous.” In the Canadian new orthodoxy, meanwhile, White people, no matter how long their pedigree reaches back in this country, are recast, or miscast, as “settlers” (never with a capital), a quasi-pejorative term in the hands of many academics, which I cheerfully eschew.  I am pleased to note its absence in this work.

The author begins his book near the end of the story, with an interesting narrative on the establishment and subsequent abandonment by the Hudson’s Bay Company of a fur trade post at Fort Ross on Somerset Island at the eastern extremity of the geographic scope of his work. This post, which operated only from 1937 to 1948, was where east met west in the Canadian North. It began with a dream necessitated by the company’s realization that supplying its posts in the area of King William Island from the west was fraught with difficulty caused by ice, weather, and distance. The company’s plan was to ship supplies from Montréal through Lancaster Sound and Prince Regent Inlet to Fort Ross, where they would be transferred to a western-based schooner to supply company posts west of Boothia Peninsula. After a few years of success, the project ultimately failed because of ice conditions but also due to the sustained drop in value of white fox pelts.

This leads nicely into the second chapter, White Fox: From the Trapper to the Retail Customer, a detailed discussion of the animal itself, the trapping of it, pelt preparation, sale of pelts at the local level, and the lives of the trappers, both Native and foreign. Beyond the local level, the author carries the discussion on to include the fur auction, preparation of pelts by dealers, the manufacturing of fur garments, and their sale at both the wholesale and retail levels. This is an in-depth look at the economics and social aspects of the white fox trade that, to my knowledge, has not been presented elsewhere in such an integrated and holistic manner.

At this point, the author was faced with a choice – to present the narrative in chronological order or arrange it by region. He has wisely opted to do both. The rest of the book is presented in three parts, covering three time periods. The first, spanning the years 1899 to 1914, describes the development and geographic expansion of the fur trade. The second period covers the glory days from 1914 to 1929 – Bockstoce calls it the “heyday” of the fur trade. The third period covers the years 1929 to approximately 1950 – the end date varies geographically. Within each of these three periods the author discusses events within the three geographic regions: Chukotka, northern Alaska, and “Western Arctic Canada.” [I should note that, as a Canadian, I think of the Western Canadian Arctic as being the area from the Alaskan border to the area of Baillie Island, and the rest of the area from there to Boothia Peninsula and Somerset Island as the Central Canadian Arctic. The recent settlement of native land claims in the area is probably changing the perception of those Canadians who care, so that the consensus of today’s understanding would be that the Western Canadian Arctic extends from the Alaskan border to the Nunavut border, and the rest of the coastline and islands from there to Boothia Peninsula is the Central Arctic, what we Canadians call the Kitikmeot Region.]

This organizational decision allows the author to discuss in detail the activities in the three regions, without the reader losing track of the timeline. And still it is a complex story. But it works.

Bowhead whaling, of which the author has written extensively, transformed the cultures of the native people on both sides of Bering Strait after 1848. Native peoples had also hunted bowheads, but primarily for their meat and blubber; non-Native whalers were more interested in the baleen but they also traded manufactured goods to the natives for the pelts of foxes and other land mammals. Eventually, gold also contributed to the transformation of Native society, bringing an influx of White treasure seekers to the North and presenting new opportunities for trade.

I should confess, at this point, my personal preference in reading history is biography. So I looked for, and found, the larger-than-life characters that one would expect in an epic of the north. Charlie Carpendale, an Australian; Bengt Vold, a Norwegian; and Olaf Swenson, a Swedish-American were just a few of the names of the traders on the front lines of this cultural transformation on the Siberian coast. Soon enough whaling made its impact on the north coast of Alaska with entrepreneurs like Charlie Brower at Point Barrow, from which station the industry pushed eastward to Herschel Island off the Yukon coast. Whalers and traders like Fritz Wolki took it past Herschel as far as the Baillie Island area, but it remained for the Danish cook-turned-whaler Christian Klengenberg to push into the last unexplored area of the North American coast line, into the central Canadian Arctic and initiate trade with the people today called Inuinnait, then known as the Copper Eskimos. Joseph Bernard plays an important and largely unsung role in this saga. A Canadian from Prince Edward Island, he described himself as “a trader uninterested in fortune; an explorer uninterested in fame; but consumed with a great curiosity about things of science and nature.” Bernard wintered his famous vessel, Teddy Bear, three times in Dolphin and Union Strait and Coronation Gulf between 1910 and 1914, where he traded and collected material goods and artifacts which today grace many museums. It was probably because of information gleaned from Bernard that Christian Klengenberg relocated his trading efforts to Coronation Gulf in 1916.

In his classic The People of the Twilight, the anthropologist Diamond Jenness noted that the fur trade transformed Copper Inuit society from collectivist to individualist. Copper Inuit were the last Inuit to be influenced by outside forces. Some had had fleeting interactions with explorers in the previous century, but the onslaught of traders, police and missionaries in the second decade of the twentieth century was brutally quick and transformative of all aspects of their culture. Jenness noted that “Only in one respect did it benefit them: it lessened the danger of those unpredictable famines which had overtaken them every ten or fifteen years.” Many who had suffered through those famines may have felt that it was worth the price. John Bockstoce says as much; during his many sojourns in the north, he “began to perceive how the lives of these ‘Northerners’ [and he is speaking not only of the Inuinnait]… had changed because of their participation in the whaling industry and the fur trade – and in the opinion of most of them, mainly for the better.”

In Russia, the Soviet government put the brakes on the unchecked proliferation of trading on the western side of the Bering Strait. In Canada the Royal North West Mounted Police (later renamed Royal Canadian Mounted Police) established detachments in an effort to bring law and order to the Western Canadian Arctic. At the same time the giant Hudson’s Bay Company moved eastward from the Mackenzie Delta, slowly but inexorably crushing its opponents, the independent traders. Captain C. T. Pedersen was the public face in the north for two trading companies, the Northern Whaling and Trading Company in Alaska, and the Canalaska Trading Company in the Canadian Arctic. He and his unseen southern partner Albert Herskovitz were the last to sell out or fold. In 1938 he sold the Canadian company to his well-capitalized rival. The Inuit had benefited from Pedersen’s presence. “Pedersen’s goods were of higher quality, his prices were lower, his deliveries were more reliable, and Captain and Mrs. Peterson’s accommodating personalities were far more attractive to customers than the HBC’s detachment and disinterest,” writes Bockstoce.

The outsized personalities who people this book and found success as traders were not only non-Native. On the Siberian side the Native trader Quwaaren was extremely successful, so much so that in the 1880s he purchased a sixty-foot schooner from an American whaler. Natkusiak from Alaska, also known as Billy Banksland, and others from the Mackenzie Delta settled Banks Island, virgin territory for white fox trapping, and accumulated wealth in the glory years of the fur trade. Some were able to buy their own schooners. Some even travelled occasionally to Seattle in their own vessels to purchase supplies. The author also devotes considerable consideration to a successful Canadian Inuit trader and middleman in the central Arctic, Angulalik.

Fur prices had been at record heights in 1928. But the stock market crash of the following year was mirrored quickly in the fur markets worldwide. By 1934 the retail fur market was 30% of its 1929 turnover. The market never recovered.

The end of Bockstoce’s narrative coincides with the end of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s dream of uniting east and west through the use of Fort Ross as a trans-shipment point for goods. The fur trade was not dead but it was stagnant, and the HBC, having secured its long-sought monopoly in the Western Canadian Arctic, was left to maintain its position largely unopposed. With Soviet control of Siberia in the 1920s, a curtain of silence descended on the western side of Bering Strait, with knowledge of developments there seldom reaching North America. Inuit society in both Alaska and the Western Canadian Arctic, in the meantime, had been transformed. The author notes, in his concluding paragraph, “A market for white fox pelts exist to this day, but the price – and the reward for the trapper and for the trapper’s family – has never returned to the glory days of the 1920s.”

John Bockstoce’s research for this book, done in tandem with that for his other major works, covers half a century. It shows. His scholarship is impeccable and his writing lucid and captivating. The book is well-bound, with an attractive dust jacket. Front and back end-maps cover the geographic scope of the book, and contain all relevant place names. Other maps are included with the text as necessary. Numerous relevant photographs are included, and their captions are generous and informative. The Acknowledgments read like a Who’s Who of Arctic scholarship and western Arctic citizenry covering many decades. Of particular note and utility, the book has an eight-page chronology.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Unchained Man

Unchained Man: The Arctic life and times of Captain Robert Abram Bartlett

by Maura Hanrahan

Portugal Cove-St Philip’s, NL: Boulder Publications

Reviewed by Jonathan Dore

Robert Bartlett was born in Brigus, Newfoundland, in 1875, and bucked the tradition of his locally famous ancestors by going to sea not to hunt seals but to explore, gravitating always towards the far north. The best-known expeditions in which he participated were the last three of Peary (1898-1902 in the Windward, and 1905-06 and 1908-09 in the Roosevelt), including his attempts on the North Pole, and Stefansson’s Canadian Arctic Expedition of 1913-18 in the Karluk. In the latter three expeditions Bartlett was captain of the ship, but not expedition leader, and the ambivalence of this position means that he would probably be known only to Arctic exploration aficionados but for his extraordinary 700-mile journey, with the Inuit hunter Claude Kataktovik, to seek help for the stranded survivors of the Karluk in 1914, showing leadership of a kind that Stefansson so pointedly lacked. It was this journey, so reminiscent of Shackleton’s rescue of the Endurance crew two years later, that propels Bartlett into the realm of mythic fame. Haunted by the tragic death—despite his best efforts—of 11 expedition members from the Karluk, he succumbed to alcoholism in the following decade before restoring equilibrium and sense of purpose to his life when he started leading his own series of annual expeditions in his own schooner, the Effie Morrissey, over the twenty-odd years before his death in 1946.

Almost all of this information can be found, scattered randomly like grass seed, at some point or other in Maura Hanrahan’s book. But it really shouldn’t be as difficult to find as it is. It’s not often that one finishes the opening chapter of a non-fiction book bemused by the simple question of what the author is trying to achieve. Even rarer that the puzzlement remains on reaching the end of the book. Ostensibly a biography (“life and times” could scarcely be a more traditional marker of the genre), Unchained Man seems, by contrast, to be segments of several different books with different goals, all sadly unrealized. It’s not even clear that a biography is one of them.

The book’s opening chapter launches straight into Peary’s last expedition. Often such points of high drama function as brief openers in biographies to draw a reader in before returning to the subject’s origins. Here instead we get not only the author’s full account of the expedition, but also of Peary and Bartlett’s two previous expeditions, mixed in with summaries of Inuit–European relations, theories of imperialism, racism, and white male privilege, and thumbnail sketches of a generous handful of Bartlett ancestors, in a chapter in which Peary is a far more visible presence than Bartlett. The author seems somewhat naïve in assessing Peary’s truthfulness about reaching the Pole, and it’s a question how familiar she is with the literature on the subject—Robert Bryce’s Cook and Peary: The Polar Controversy, Resolved and Wally Herbert’s The Noose of Laurels are both notable for their absence from the book’s bibliography. The sparsity of dates, absence of maps, and lack of dramatic flair in the writing are also serious failings in this chapter as an account of an expedition.

Chapter 2, “A cottage hearth and open waters: An expectant childhood” looks like it might be going back to the beginning to give us the background we need to put Bartlett’s later exploits in context, but here again we are destined to be frustrated. The explorer’s own childhood is referred to occasionally, and fleetingly, in the context of a long and rambling essay on his immediate family and ancestors—expanding on the thumbnail sketches begun in chapter 1—many of whom the author writes about with patently greater interest and warmth than she shows for her supposed subject. Eight pages are devoted to the explorer’s grandmother Mary Leamon, within which four are spent describing in great detail a stipulation in her will that her descendants should not marry into a particular local family—something that might, at a push, warrant two or three sentences in a biography of Robert Bartlett. Even the two pages devoted to his younger sisters’ later tearoom business (several decades out of place in this chapter) is more than we learn about the first thirty years of Robert Bartlett’s own life.

Surely chapter 3—“Sculpting a life: Gaffs, compasses, and following on” will make amends? But no: whoever’s life is being sculpted, it isn’t Bob Bartlett’s. The family history simply continues uninterrupted, this time following the Y chromosome back through several generations of hard-bitten Bartlett sealers and sailors. By the end of it, we are half-way through the book and have had 135 pages on the social history of Brigus seen through the lens of a few interrelated families over several generations, mixed in with an abbreviated and unfocused account of Peary’s later expeditions and generous dollops of apologetic fussing about how racist and sexist everyone was in the nineteenth century, as if autres temps, autres mœurs were a new discovery. What we emphatically don’t have is what’s promised on the cover of the book.

In chapter 4 we hit the half-way point, and the author’s account of the Karluk disaster, once again short of dates, route maps, and telling the story in chronological order—the basic apparatus needed to make an expedition account intelligible to the reader. What the author does finally achieve, however, is the foregrounding of Robert Bartlett, and specifically of his life-saving trek from Wrangell Island to the Siberian mainland and across the Bering Strait to summon help. Even here, however, the drama must take a back seat to the author’s virtue-signalling concern to quantify precisely how much respect Bartlett is showing to his companion Kataktovik and the succession of Chukchi hosts who, once on land, gave them hospitality and supplies that saved their lives. It is instructive to compare this to the expertly crafted prose, seamlessly assimilated archival research, clearly drawn character sketches, perfectly paced narrative, and simple, non-judgemental warmth of human understanding seen in Jennifer Niven’s account of the disaster, The Ice Master (2002).

Chapters 5 and 6 happily continue to focus on Bartlett, and take us through the last thirty years of his life. Though now famous enough for his name and image to be used in advertising everything from tobacco to breakfast cereal, and despite being the author of his own account of the Karluk’s voyage (later he also wrote an autobiography), he was dogged by dissatisfaction, unease, and probably survivor guilt, his reliance on alcohol gradually increasing over a decade that ended with him being run over on a New York street. The enforced abstinence of his subsequent time in hospital was enough to break the spell, and he determined to swear off liquor for good. Determined to go north again on his own terms, he bought a schooner of the kind he knew from his early days in Newfoundland and started to use the wealthy New York contacts his fame had brought him to conduct a series of summer voyages to the coasts of Labrador and Baffin Bay in which the sons of the rich would pay to act as crew (though always with a core staff of professional sailors) on a character-building adventure. It proved to be a winning formula that provided Bartlett with a living for the rest of his life. Mentoring the young seemed to give him genuine pleasure too, and Hanrahan picks out his nephew Jack Angel and the geographer David Nutt, later one of the founders of climate science, as particularly significant. Science was another interest that flowered in Bartlett’s later life, particularly the collecting of plant and animal specimens for museums, and stemmed from the spiritual refreshment he always got from nature, part of the attraction that kept drawing him back to the Arctic.

Although all these elements emerge in Hanrahan’s account, their presentation lacks the essential chronological markers needed to make sense of a person’s life, which is after all experienced, and develops, in only a forward direction through time. When writing a biography, a thematic approach is not enough.

Hanrahan seems to have been caught between the desire to write several different books, and has tried unsatisfactorily to do a bit of all of them. One, perhaps, is a history of the town of Brigus as an example of a prosperous nineteenth-century sealing and fishing town. Another is a family history, showing the ebb and flow of personal and social forces that mould each generation’s outlook and life chances. A third is an attempt to recover the hidden stories of a series of impressive and formidable women, in danger of being lost because their accomplishments were more often domestic than public. All of these are worthwhile projects, and deserve their own books. They should not have been shoehorned into a biography of Robert Bartlett, a project that one senses lost the author’s interest at some point. The decade of archival research on three continents that she undertook for this book should have made it a definitive biography; instead it seems merely to have distracted the author into disappearing down innumerable rabbit holes, and then presenting her findings as if they were all equally relevant. The crucial discipline of selection is missing.

At root the problem perhaps stems from the author’s lack of interest in, or sympathy with, geographical exploration, the activity that motivated Bartlett. Certainly anyone capable of writing the breathtakingly unqualified statement that “racism was at the foundation of all exploration activity” could not be accused of a broad or deep knowledge of the field, as numerous errors of fact throughout the book illustrate. In the page 23 footnote, Hanrahan brackets Svalbard with Australia and Canada as “colonized” places subject unjustly to the legal doctrine of terra nullius, seemingly unaware that Svalbard had never had any human inhabitants before its discovery by the Dutch in 1596. On page 20, she brackets Ernest Shackleton with Robert Scott as having “military origins” (an idea Scott would have found wryly amusing), and in the page 57 footnote has Shackleton’s famous open-boat journey in 1916 ending at the Falkland Islands rather than South Georgia. On page 35 she writes that in 1906 “the ailing Roosevelt had pushed farther north than any ship in history” (to 82°20′N—the latitude is not actually given in the book), unaware that the most celebrated ship in polar history, the Fram, had been more than three degrees further north (to 85°57′), ten years earlier. On page 147 this claim is given an even more bizarre twist, in the statement that Bartlett was “the first captain to take a ship north of 88 degrees”, something that no ship achieved before nuclear-powered icebreakers in the 1970s, and perhaps the result of conflating the earlier claim, already false, with Bartlett’s own personal farthest north on foot in 1909. On page 40 she berates Peary for naming features on the north-east coast of Greenland in 1892 and 1895: “In so doing he completely ignored the long-standing Inuit presence in the Arctic”. But as with Svalbard, it is the author who is unaware of when and where that presence was and was not to be found: Thule settlement of the north-east coast of Greenland had declined long before European contact, and had been extinct for some seventy years by the time of Peary’s first expeditions. Their names for geographical features, never written down or part of any surviving group’s oral history, therefore were and are definitively unrecoverable. On page 142 Bartlett’s acclaimed navigation of the stricken Roosevelt was in 1906, not 1909 (as the author knows, having written about it in chapter 1), and on page 143 Sam Bartlett’s voyage of 1903-04 had made claim to the eastern Arctic specifically on behalf of Canada, not Britain, which had transferred its claim to the dominion in 1880. On page 241, Roald Amundsen had not yet, in 1909, even announced he was aiming for the South Pole, let alone reached it. And on page 242, George Francis Lyon was certainly never part of an expedition aiming for the North Pole, though his former commander Parry had been.

The failure is as much the publisher’s as the author’s. The book’s editor should have obliged the author to make a root-and-branch restructuring of the content, jettisoning whole chapters, tightening up others, adding new ones, and restoring some sense of direction and focus. The copy-editor should have dealt with the errors listed above, as well as absent-minded inversions and solecisms like “biscuits of tins” (156), “London Illustrated News” (167), and “Royal Geographic Society” (241). Both individuals are named on the book’s copyright page, a practice the publisher might want to reconsider.

Most readers who buy a biography of Robert Bartlett will be, in some sense, fans of exploration history. An archivally researched biography of Bartlett has long been needed. On both counts it seems a shame that the assignment should have fallen to someone whose antipathy to the very activity that gives the story life makes her so ill-suited to the task. Such a narrative should be a dramatic gift to the author; what results instead sorely tests the patience of the reader.