Saturday, December 18, 2010

Just Received: Polar Books of the Season

The end of the year often brings a series of oversize packages to the offices of the Arctic Book Review - 'tis the season for large-format, illustrated, and definitive tomes, and this year is no exception. And so, although we've not had time to thoroughly read and review all these titles yet, we'd like to draw our readers' attention to some of the most remarkable among these new offerings.

Not all of these books are for everyone -- W.F. Weeks's On Sea Ice is an exhaustive and technical tome, a reference for oceanographers and other scientists whose work involves sea ice (as opposed to land-bound ice and glaciers). Nevertheless, it merits mention for Dr. Weeks's eminently readable and delightful introductory chapter, "Historical Background," which offers a lively survey of the literature of Ice from ancient times, through to legends such as Scorseby and Nansen, through to the present moment.

Our other three volumes are based around photography; even for those to whom lengthy narratives of Arctic expeditions may have limited appeal, the sheer beauty of the region has the capacity to arrest any eye, as our remaining books amply demonstrate. First, we have Jerry Kobalenko's Arctic Eden; readers of the ABR may recall our review of his earlier book, The Horizontal Everest, by David Owen. As with his first volume, the text is a geographical and cultural ramble, recounting journeys from Beechey, Axel Heiberg, and Ellesmere Islands, the last of which Kobalenko has traversed from top to bottom in a series of interlinked journeys. Yet unlike his previous book, here the large format allows the photographs to star, and they do -- from the site of Sverdrup's Fram Haven to the Franklin graves at Beechey; from the remains of a cairn built by Peary and the Inuit at Cape Colgate to a striking view of polar mirages hanging over Jones Sound, there is an abundance of impressive imagery. Croker mountains, anyone?

Yet it's Ragnar Axelsson's Last Days of the Arctic which, to my mind, better captures the rich contradictions of this fascinating region, and the peril in which it presently lies. In some measure, this is simply because of Axelsson's imagery of the Inuit and Inughuit, who are visible only in the margins of Kobalenko's book; here we get a sense both of the profound isolation of many northern hamlets, and yet also their tremendous vitality, their youth, their disarming honesty. Axelsson captures a diverse array of images: a young girl in Kuumiut in East Greenland, in her best summer dress and on her way to church, making what looks like some kind of Hip-hop hand gesture to the photographer; a Inuk toddler fast asleep on a couch, while his father washes up in the adjacent bathroom (northern houses being an endless play on what can be done with less than 750 square feet of space); an old hunter, cigarette in mouth, clutching a husky pup, wearing a knit cap as he gazes out across a settlement. Amidst these, there are extended sequences of hunting trips, where traditional spears mingle with high-powered rifles, and a narwhal head makes for an excellent trophy moment. The greater part of Axelsson's images are in stark, stunning black-and-white; one can only imagine the envy that Ansel Adams and others of the ƒ64 group might feel for a land where the bright snow every day permits a depth of field rarely possible in the temperate zone. The people, and the land, come through with such stark clarity that, as with the Arctic sun itself, it is necessary sometimes to squint.

Our final book is not really an Arctic volume per se, though it includes a fair number of polar figures. Readers of the ABR will recall our notice of Dr Huw Lewis Jones's first volume in this series, Polar Portraits, two years ago; now comes its successor, Face to Face: Ocean Portraits, published (as is Axelsson's) by Polarworld. The format is parallel, as is the richness and newness of every portrait, even those that some of us may have seen before. The quality of the reproductions is magnificent, and the new photos -- many of them by the gifted photographer Nigel Millard -- are every bit their equal. Among the Arctic subjects are Lewis Gordon Pugh, "the human polar bear," seen emerging from the water at the North Pole; Henry Le Vesconte, a lieutenant on the Franklin expedition who was memorialized last year in Greenwich at an event hosted by Polarworld, attended by Robert Grenier, shown here at the rail of a Thames clipper on the evening of his talk; Sir George Nares, last of the great nineteenth-century British polar explorers; Otto Schmidt, explorer of the Soviet Arctic; John Parker, captain of the Truelove; and Sir Edward Inglefield, whose own Arctic pictures were exhibited in London in 1853. Among the other striking portraits are those of Lady Phyllis Sopwith (whose white-gloved hands upon the wheel and aristocratic angled chin practically scream "yachtswoman"); open-water swimmer Lynne Cox, quite literally in her element; rower Alex Bellini channeling the look and beard of a latter-day Rasputin; artist Dorothy Cross holding a dessicated shark's skin; and yacht restorer Elizabth Meyer, her face salted with sawdust from a current project.

As with the earlier Portraits volume, added attractions in this book include a fine essay on ocean photography past by Dr Lewis-Jones, illustrated by a wide array of striking and seldom-seen early photographs, followed by a lively discussion of present-day photography in which he's joined by Millard, Rick Tomlinson, Joni Sternbach, and David Doubilet, and a brief, beautifully-written afterward, "The Heart of the Ocean," by Deborah Cramer.

It won't be easy to choose from among these books at year's end -- and with some of them, you may need to get a bigger stocking! -- but all of us here at the Arctic Book Review wish you the pleasantest of holiday seasons, and the time and space for lots of reading!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Interview with the author, Dominique Fortier

Russell Potter: I've read that your initial interest in the Franklin story came from the NOVA broadcast, in which I was a presenter. So, as you can imagine, I'm curious as to which scenes or sequences from this program lingered most in your mind?

Dominique Fortier: At first, I was just blown away to see the Terror and the Erebus prisoners of a sea of white and to learn that more than a hundred men had stayed there and managed to survive for almost three years. I remember pausing the TV and calling to my fiancé, asking him if he’d ever heard about that expedition. (He hadn’t either; I gather we are not the only ones in Québec not to have known of it). But there is one image in particular that stuck with me the whole time I was writing the book: that of the men, hungry, thinned and exhausted by the three winters spent in the ice, leaving the ships and starting to walk – towards what they must have known was their death. Nevertheless, they were hauling behind them, in boats weighing more than a ton, all kinds of trinkets: soaps, silver polish, curtain rods, the most ridiculous things … That image told, in a very powerful way, that after all they went through they still were not ready to leave England behind them… It also told both of their arrogance and of their complete ignorance of what the Arctic was like and demanded. It is because of that single image that I started to write their stories.

Russell Potter: Yes, it’s a very compelling image! I was really impressed by the breadth and detail of the historical materials you draw from in your novel. What kind of research did you do, and were there any documents or resources that turned out to be especially valuable?

Dominique Fortier: I started with Pierre Berton’s Artic Grail, about the history of the North-West Passage “conquest”, which offered a good overview, and then went on to read a number of works specifically on the Franklin expedition. I focused on those that presented factual information (log books, list of canned food on board, etc.). Among them: Frozen in Time, by Owen Beattie and John Geiger, and Iceblink, by Scott Cookman. I also read a biography of Crozier and one of lady Jane Franklin, so as to have an idea of the important events in their lives, but I didn’t want to know too much about them, because I still wanted to be able to create my own “fictional” characters. More importantly, I read journals and accounts of explorers from the time, among those the one Franklin had written about an earlier expedition (Narrative of a second expedition to the shores of the polar sea in the years 1825, 1826, and 1827), and also lots of science books written in the 1850s (on magnetism, geography, etc.), in order to try to capture the “soul” of that epoch, and hopefully to see the Arctic through nineteenth century eyes. That also helped me to find Francis Crozier’s voice, which I didn’t want to sound modern.

Russell Potter: It certainly doesn’t – in fact it seems to me pitch-perfect for both the man and the times. In fact, I’m struck by the ways in which your novel paints a rather less than complimentary portrait of such typically admired figures as Franklin and Fitzjames, while making Crozier -- who is usually portrayed as dour and disappointed -- into a more complex and compelling figure. Was this a conscious design, or did the characters just come out that way?

Dominique Fortier: It was a very deliberate choice. I didn’t want to make a hero out of Franklin (nor out of Crozier, for that matter). John Franklin is so well known and glorified that today he almost feels like a statue. So I figured it would be more interesting to have someone looking at that “statue” from the outside, in a critical but always very respectful way, since Crozier is a man of honor and he would never dare undermining the authority of his superior. Still, I felt it would make an interesting contrast to oppose Franklin’s unbridled optimism with Crozier’s doubts and uncertainties. And I wanted the reader to learn to know both of them mostly through what they say and do, not so much through analysis of their characters. In the end, Crozier is flawed, but he comes out human. At least, I hope.

Russell Potter: Your portrait of Lady Franklin also seems to me particularly vivid; how did you set about imagining her?

Dominique Fortier: She sort of imposed herself. I didn’t have a specific idea about how I wanted her to be, but as soon as I started writing about her, she was there, and it was very clear what she wanted. I would say Sophia’s character gave me more trouble, because her “motivations” are changing and in the end remain quite a mystery. But Lady Jane was a very strong woman, in a no-nonsense kind of way, she was resourceful, independent, quick to act, so I basically only had to follow her lead.

Russell Potter: I loved the use of the de Bergerac play -- were there other sources in French that you drew from or consulted? I'm curious as to whether you looked at Emile Frédéric de Bray's journals, or Jules Verne's Voyages et aventures du Capitaine Hatteras?

Dominique Fortier: I actually don’t know of de Bray’s journals (but now I have to go take a look!) and I must admit I am not a big Jules Verne fan. That may sound strange, but I would say Flaubert was an inspiration, for his irony, as well as Jane Austen (even if she is definitely not French). I chose to adapt Le Voyage dans la Lune de Cyrano de Bergerac because of a sentence found in Berton’s Grail, that I quote in the novel. Eskimos, seeing white people and their ship for the first time, ask them if they have come from the Sun of from the Moon. And I figured that, in a way, the Franklin expedition was in fact, at the time, the equivalent of going to the Moon. (By the way, I love the fact there is a crater named from Crozier on the Moon. I tried to find a way to hint to it in the novel and couldn’t… but I managed to put it in my second book.) These men lose all their bearings and find themselves in a place entirely unknown, that didn’t clearly appear on maps, as foreign as another planet would be. But Cyrano aside, I tried mostly to keep the explicit reference English (Shakespeare, Goldsmith, Austen) so as not to draw attention to the fact that it was a Francophone writing about this very British adventure.

Russell Potter: In her lecture, "Concerning Franklin and his Gallant Crew," Margaret Atwood identifies the Franklin story as a foundational myth of Canadian literature, and points to writers such as Rudy Wiebe, Mordecai Richler, and Gwendolyn MacEwen. Now that, thanks to your novel, this story has found a place both in Francophone Canadian letters and in English translation, do you think this will affect the way the Franklin myth functions for Canadians as whole?

Dominique Fortier: I’m afraid I’m not equipped to answer that question. Once I decided I would write about the Franklin expedition, I chose early on to not look at other novels on the same subject, for fear that I would just get discouraged and drop it. For the same reason, I haven’t studied the “resonance” the fiction has had or to the myth it has helped build. The only thing I can say is this: once they learn of it, Quebecers share the fascination Anglo-Canadians already have for that story and the mystery that still surrounds it.

Russell Potter: I was delighted to learn that Jean-Marc Vallée is planning a film of your novel. Will you be involved with the screenplay, and can you tell us anything else about this project?

Dominique Fortier: We are actually working on the script together, and we’re supposed to have a first draft at the end of November. It is pure joy working with him: he is an incredibly gifted screenwriter, and a very good teacher. We immediately agreed on what the movie should be about: it is a tragedy, but it also has to be a bit of a comedy; the “adventure” and discovery part is important, but, in the end, it is love story. As for production, I have no idea! Jean-Marc talked early on of trying to get financing in the UK, but we are still far from there …

Russell Potter: Many of my readers are asking when they can expect a U.S. edition, and since the Arctic Book Review reaches an international audience, I'd be interested to know about this or any foreign editions that may be in the works.

Dominique Fortier: For the moment, the book can be ordered in the U.S. via I don’t know if there are going to be other editions or translations.

Russell Potter: What's your next project?

Dominique Fortier: My “day job” is to be a translator. I’m just finishing up the French translation of Linden McIntyre’s The Bishop’s Man for a Quebec publishing house. My second novel came out in French this summer; it is called Les larmes de saint Laurent (St. Lawrence Tears). It is about earthquakes, volcanoes... and is also a love story. I am now working on a third novel.

Monday, September 27, 2010

On the Proper Use of Stars

To the long annals of flights of fancy inspired in whole or part by the last, fatal expedition of Sir John Franklin -- a list whose authors include Charles Dickens, Jules Verne, Joseph Conrad, Rudy Wiebe, Mordecai Richler, and Sten Nadolny -- must now be added another name, that of Dominique Fortier. It might be questioned whether, given the continued recourse to the pen over a century and a half by these and numerous other writers, another tale is called for, or even possible -- but after reading On The Proper Use of Stars, I can only say this: no matter how crowded the firmament, there shines here a new and startlingly brilliant light, yet one which takes its place in a familar constellation as though it had always been there.

Ms. Fortier's novel -- originally published as De Bon Usage des Etoiles in 2008 -- succeeds by refracting the light of its sources into a series of stellar vignettes, each of which captures a glimpse of one of the many figures who were caught up in the launch of, and search for, the Franklin expedition of 1845. Some glimmer darkly -- Crozier is almost a black hole of stellar suspiration -- while others, such as Lady Jane Franklin, take on the full refulgence of an Arctic sky. Sir John himself is cast deep in the shadows of his own expedition, reduced to a few doubtful-seeming journal entries, but we hardly miss him. His crew, on the other hand, is crammed with a variety of colorful characters, some based on its actual officers, some entirely fictional, such as the delightful "Adam Tuesday," who claims to have read every book in the ships' well-stocked libraries. In-between these leaves are folded, specimen-like, the fragments and documents of daily life: a dinner menu, a page from a manual of magnetism, a snippet of Eleanor Porden's poetry, a scribbled note attached to a button, a recipe.

The central portion of the narrative alternates between Crozier, whose dark matter grows in gravity and depth as the expedition progresses, and the lives of Lady Jane and her niece, Sophia Cracroft. Crozier's ineffectual courtship of Miss Cracroft is the connecting thread; in Fortier's version, their relationship seems far less futile than either of them feared, although (alas) neither will ever be the wiser. Crozier eventually must leave his reveries, and his ships behind, while Sophia comes to the realization -- with the help of Lady Franklin -- that perhaps, after all, the companionship of a conventional-minded man is far inferior to the company of a smart and free-spirited woman.

The social history of tea forms another delicate and finely nuanced strand, figuring both in Crozier's rivalry with Fitzjames and Lady Franklin's carefully choreographed social ensembles. And in the end, it's Lady Franklin who shines the brightest; never, in any of the other novels drawn from these histories, has she been so particularly, vividly alive as she is in Fortier's capable hands. She is here, she is there, she is everywhere -- equipped with little dogs named Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley, her color-coded maps, her calling cards, and her formidable recipe for Christmas pudding (given at novel's end should anyone wish to embark upon a two-month's journey from first stir to fiery arrival) -- she proves herself again and again a far more intrepid and tireless explorer than her seeming-heroic husband. One must see her, in this light, as the very first to make a fiction out of Franklin, and although here we witness only the first few opening brush-strokes, the reader can little doubt that, in the end, it is her portrait at which after-comers must ever ponder and pry, however various and disparate their ultimate visions.

Of these there have been many. In years past, we have had to content ourselves with a Franklin expedition fractured along stylistic lines -- one had to choose the postmodern crazy-house of Vollmann's The Rifles, the lyrical languidness of Wiebe's A Discovery of Strangers, or the faithful historical facsimiles of John Wilson's North with Franklin. Now at last, in Fortier's novel, we can partake of the playful, the lyrical, and the faithful all at once, and are led to realize, deep down in our collective Arctic souls, that what has always drawn us to this story is that single, steadfast star at which all those qualities converge.

NOW ONLINE: An interview with the author, Dominique Fortier!

Sunday, September 5, 2010

New Franklin Fiction

We don't usually notice a new book before we've even had a chance to read it -- but Dominique Fortier's On the Proper Use of Stars, which is to to be released this week by McClelland & Stewart, is a very unusual book. For while it will be (by my count) at least the twentieth novel inspired by the career of Sir John Franklin, it is the very first originally written in French by a Canadian Francophone writer. Originally published in Québec as De Bon Usage des Etoiles in 2008, it's been translated into English by Sheila Fischman. The publisher's website describes it thusly: "A sparkling, inventive debut novel inspired by Sir John Franklin's grand — but ultimately failed — quest to discover the Northwest Passage and by his extraordinary wife, Lady Jane." So of course we're keenly looking forward to receiving our copy -- the more so as it turns out that, according to this article in, she was first inspired to write it after learning of the Franklin expedition in the 2005 NOVA broadcast, in which your (usually somewhat more humble) editor appeared as a presenter. So watch this space: we'll review it as soon as possible after it's received!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

James Fitzjames: Mystery Man

James Fitzjames: The Mystery Man of the Franklin Expedition

by William Battersby

Stroud, Gloucestershire: The History Press, £20

ISBN 978-0752455129

Reviewed by Russell A. Potter

With the publication of this book, we now have full biographies of all of the chief officers of Sir John Franklin's final Arctic expedition of 1845. Franklin himself, of course, is a man of evidently endless fascination; Francis Crozier, his second-in-command, makes up in fortitude what he apparently lacked in charm, and has been seen by some as the "Last Man Standing." And yet it's Fitzjames, the third in line, who has had, in death as he had in life, the most charmed of reputations, despite the fact that so little was known about him. His lively letters sent home via the last port-of-call in Greenland, his gallant good looks (available in two different daguerreotype images), and his boundless enthusiasm ("I hope that we are forced to stay at least one winter in the ice," as memorably voiced by Thom Fell in 2005's Search for the Northwest Passage), are all part of his attraction. Indeed, he is the only figure from the expedition other than Franklin himself to have inspired a novel (John Wilson's North With Franklin: The Lost Journals of James Fitzjames, 1999).

But who was this man? By all accounts, a spirited young fellow, with a heroic rescue and a dogged expedition in the Middle East to his credit, but no Arctic experience at all. His service and promotion? Well, there are a few blanks here and there. His parents? Ahem, may we have another question, please? And yet, as William Battersby shows us in this engaging and well-researched volume, his life up until the moment of his departure for the North is recoverable in a remarkable degree of detail.

Except, as it happens, with the matter of his parentage. Not wanting to disclose any trade secrets here, I will simply say that Battersby's solution to this longstanding mystery is, I believe, the correct one, although it is (in part) a very close conjecture. "Fitzjames," after all, means merely "son of James," and had known use before as a patronymic vague enough to both hint at and gently pass over any questions of legitimacy. And yet, though deprived of the privileges he might have had as a legitimate heir, Fitzjames in fact enjoyed in his relations precisely the kind of deep and satisfying intimacies which were so often lacking from natural parents in this era. His foster parents, Robert and Louisa Coningham, raised him with the same kindness and affection with which they did their own son, William, whom Fitzjames referred to as "Willie." The two of them had a brotherly bond which endured throughout Fitzjames's life, and it was to Elizabeth "the wife of him I love best," that he addressed the charming letters sent from Greenland.

And yet, despite their closeness, the destinies of William Coningham and James Fitzjames could hardy have been more different. Coningham, through inheritance, became by degrees a wealthier and wealthier man, while Fitzjames, who first volunteered for the Royal Navy at the age of twelve, had always to seek new assignments, and promotion, by the skin of his teeth. For although his upbringing was a very good one, he lacked the sort of "friends" that were usually required for Naval advancement, particularly in times of peace. The most difficult step of his rise through the ranks was his ascent to Midshipman, and here Fitzjames's determination motivated him to permit an untruth to go unremarked -- that he had not, in fact, served the requisite full year as a first-class volunteer. This was later discovered, but glossed over, as much to avoid embarrassment to the more senior officers involved as to spare Fitzjames, and he soon distinguished himself sufficiently that there was no reason to revisit the lapse.

And his career was in every respect a brilliant one. He cut his explorer's teeth on an expedition down the Eurphrates in 1835-36, a struggle of man, machine, and water of almost mythological proportions. He participated in the naval blockade in Syria in 1839, and then went on to serve in Britain's Chinese conflict, which involved both naval bombardment and hand-to-hand street fighting. It was here that Fitzjames met many of the men whom he would later select for "Erebus" and "Terror," among them Edward Couch and George Hodgson. But perhaps his most important new friend was John Barrow, the son of Sir John Barrow, whose advocacy for Arctic exploration was so powerful and influential that it had already shaped an era.

Still, as Battersby notes, this connection alone would scarcely be sufficient to cause Fitzjames to rise above hundreds of men with similar records to attain a coveted senior post on a vaunted Arctic expedition. In this case, his detective work cannot, ultimately, solve the problem, but it appears to have been some service that Fitzjames performed for John Barrow's brother George, something which caused his friend to feel he was very much in his debt, and to intercede with his father. The results were impressive, and fateful: a promotion to Commander, and a ship which, as Battersby notes, brought him to London "at exactly the right (or wrong) time to be appointed to the Franklin Expedition."

It also goes some way to explain why it was Fitzjames, and not Crozier, who selected the junior officers for that expedition. In his biography of Crozier, Michael Smith makes much of this, seeing it as almost a direct insult to an officer of Crozier's seniority to deny him the privilege traditionally accorded to seconds. Authorities seem divided as to whether this was really so severe a breach of protocol as Smith claims, but there has also, as Battersby notes, been criticism of Fitzjames's choices. And yet, as he demonstrates, his selection was not so anomalous as is often claimed; the small number of men with specific Arctic experience (Ross's Antarctic expedition had been sent with many fewer), the supposed regional prejudices (they were in fact quite a diverse and representative batch), or the preference for former messmates (which would have been expected no matter who was doing the choosing).

And, in any case, they sailed into an oblivion that would have been difficult to avoid, even had every man aboard been a hardened Polar veteran. As Glyn Williams has noted, it was precisely the Franklin expedition's success in reaching an area assumed by those who searched for it to be impassible that delayed -- fatally -- any chance of rescue. Battersby, unlike Smith and other biographers, avoids any speculation about the fate of Fitzjames or any other individual men after the abandonment of "Erebus" and "Terror" in 1848. It's a judicious and understandable caution, although given the remarkable detail he has given us of Fitzjames's earlier life and career, it feels somewhat like jumping off a cliff into the void (and perhaps that is his intent). He instead traces the sense of loss via Fitzjames's foster-brother William Coningham, and thus gives a fresh sense of the admixture of grief and admiration felt by those who knew Franklin and his officers personally. It's a fitting conclusion.

There are some additional thoughts and appendices, including a poignant poem, "A Sailor's Life," penned by Fitzjames, and several excellent maps. The illustrative material is rich and well-reproduced, though I hope I will be forgiven for saying that my favorite plate is that giving both of Fitzjames's photographic poses side by side. For some years, it frustrated me to see one or the other of these images reproduced, without any indication that two existed: here we finally have Fitzjames, with and without telescope, and without and with wry smile. Like this plate, Battersby's book is the first really full depiction that we have had, and it ably fills our previously incomplete portrait of Franklin and his senior officers. It's a book that no one with an interest in this expedition, or this period, will want to miss.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Arctic Labyrinth

Arctic Labyrinth: The Quest for the Northwest Passage

Glyn Williams

Allen Lane

ISBN 978-1-846-14138-6

Reviewed by Jonathan Dore

Anyone wanting an introductory overview of one of the Western world’s most enduring exploratory obsessions would previously have had to consult three or four books at a minimum. Now we can recommend an authoritative and engaging account of the whole sweep of the subject, from soup to nuts, in one volume.

Over the last fifty years Glyn Williams’s writings have ranged widely over maritime and exploration history in the broad context of the development of European empires, with a particular focus on the eighteenth century. The Northwest Passage has been a constant theme in his work, from his first monograph, The British Search for the Northwest Passage in the Eighteenth Century, in 1962, through his editions of journals and correspondence from the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives. The long and complicated search for the passage from the bay, and then from the Pacific coast, resulted in his 2002 overview of the 18th-century phase of that work, Voyages of Delusion, an updating and major expansion of his 1962 book. Now, in Arctic Labyrinth, he has pulled back the focus still further to give us a bird’s-eye view of the whole exploratory effort towards a north-west passage from Frobisher’s first voyage in 1576 to Amundsen’s final accomplishment of it in 1906, with further chapters bringing us through Larsen’s first single-season navigation in the St Roch in 1944 to the present, when the new situations opened up by global warming—both navigational and political—are still very much in flux. As a masterly synthesis of so much of his previous work, Arctic Labyrinth is a fitting capstone to Williams’s authorial career.

As its title makes clear, the focus throughout is on the Northwest Passage, not Arctic exploration in general, and Williams, Emeritus Professor of History at Queen Mary, University of London, is disciplined in not getting sidetracked into the sixteenth century probing of the Northeast Passage, or the late-19th century moves towards the North Pole. The title also makes clear the central problem of the Northwest Passage: unlike the long and dangerous but ultimately straightforward slog of the Northeast Passage, or the short and dangerous canal of Magellan’s Strait, the Northwest Passage is not one route but a mix-and-match collection of possible routes through a maze of islands that can theoretically be put together in dozens of possible permutations, and the book’s title emphasizes the labyrinthine nature of a passage whose very entrance took more than two centuries to find.

While other writers, especially Pierre Berton and Fergus Fleming, have made enormous contributions to our understanding of the 19th-century phase of exploration, their passion and humour have occasionally been at the expense of a disinterested coolness of judgement in assessing the motives of the explorers and outcomes of their actions. But the depth of knowledge that a professional historian brings to all the related topics in the background of Northwest Passage exploration, from early globes and maps to the fur trade and naval history, all within the overarching context of an unfolding European imperialism, make this a work apart in its breadth of reference and sophistication of outlook, and bring exploration history out of its specialist niche and into the unaccustomed light of the serious historiographic mainstream. All this means it is hard to imagine an author better qualified to write such a book. In terms of the source material with which he is familiar, probably no one has been in a better position to do so since John Barrow himself produced his Chronological History of Voyages into Arctic Regions in 1818—a time when the last and most productive segment of the search was still in the future.

The book is essentially in three parts, underlining the three-act structure of the search: an opening phase from the 1570s to the 1630s, when mythical waterways such as the Strait of Anian led many explorers astray; a renewed though sporadic effort focused on Hudson’s Bay and then the Pacific between 1719 and 1794; and the third and best-known phase beginning with John Ross’s cruise around Baffin Bay in 1818 and concluding with the final Franklin search expeditions in the late 1850s. The last phase is further subdivided, as is appropriate for the period of greatest activity, into Barrow’s systematic attempt to map the coasts and sea lanes both overland and by ship, and the large number of naval and private voyages that, in attempting to save Franklin’s last expedition, virtually finished the job. The intense activity of this later period inevitably makes Amundsen’s final voyage through the passage—the main subject of the book’s fifth section—almost bathetic. Unlike Magellan or even Nordenskjöld, every mile of Amundsen’s route had been mapped by one or another of dozens of previous explorers before he sailed it; only the stringing together by a single crew in a single vessel was missing, and it is to Williams’s credit that he recognizes how much that “only” hides, giving proper weight to Amundsen’s grit and accomplishment.

The author’s breadth of outlook brings some refreshing new angles to familiar stories. For instance, it’s become an almost universal motif to note how the cultural prejudices of the 19th-century Royal Navy prevented them from learning effective means of travel, clothing, or shelter despite the abundant examples of all three the Inuit provided them with. Williams does not demur from the general point at all, but nevertheless makes clear that the Navy’s practice in fact showed significant evolution and signs of learning from experience as one expedition followed another: clothing and rations were improved, daily routines refined, and there was even, before the deadening orthodoxy of man-hauled sledging became established later in the century, enthusiastic and extensive adoption of dog-sledging.

The source materials available for each period vary tremendously: for the earliest voyages very few original materials survive and for blow-by-blow accounts of the voyages the historian is almost completely reliant on the sometimes heavily redacted navigators’ journals published by Richard Hakluyt and his successor, Samuel Purchas. For the 18th-century material, the author’s countless hours in the Hudson’s Bay Company archives over the decades show in his profound knowledge not only of the journals but of the company’s minute books, correspondence, and other administrative papers. And for the 19th century phase a still larger selection of manuscript material is available alongside the often minutely detailed published journals, sometimes from more than one participant of each voyage. Williams shows his experience not just as a historian but as a writer in smoothing out the discontinuities of the sources to present a seamless narrative with a roughly even granularity of detail throughout—a task made easier by the fact that the four-century scope of the book mostly precludes the description of events at a day-to-day level.

Painting with even brushstrokes also brings to the fore the usually more overlooked characters of the story, and particularly those of Williams’s original area of specialism, the 18th century, when the search was at its most unglamorous, circling obsessively around the giant cul-de-sac of Hudson Bay. Christopher Middleton takes his rightful place as a worthy merchant-turned-naval seaman in the mould of Cook, while the loss of James Knight and his entire crew in 1719 continues, in the puzzling absence of human remains, to present even more unanswered questions than that of Franklin. The real advance of the 18th century was on land, when Samuel Hearne trekked from the Bay across the Barrens to the Arctic coast in 1770–72, thus ruling out a temperate-latitude passage across North America and paving the way for the High-Arctic focus of the following century’s exploration. Williams does not give the background of Hearne’s journey in the HBC’s earlier overland expeditions of Henry Kelsey and Anthony Henday, but again this is due to his tight focus on the North West Passage, and land expeditions that went west without travelling significantly north are outside his remit (readers can turn to Company of Adventurers, the first part of Peter Newman’s monumental trilogy on the HBC, to get the full flavour of that other exploratory trajectory).

Williams ends by giving an overview of the Passage in the era of global warming. As it becomes more accessible, offering ice-free navigation for at least brief summer periods, issues of sovereignty and supervision raise their heads, but mineral exploitation seems likely to cause the most intense activity, with Russian assertions of control over undersea resources likely to provoke Canadian and US assertions in response. An oil spill or the rescue of stranded cruise ship passengers are perhaps more likely scenarios of a future crisis in the North West Passage than an armed confrontation over recognition of Canadian sovereignty. Williams marshals the evidence as impressively as ever, but would be the first to admit that in the face of such an unclear and fast-changing future, crystal-ball gazing is likely to be as speculative as mapping the Strait of Anian.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Man Who Ate His Boots

The Man Who Ate His Boots: The Tragic History of the Search for the Northwest Passage

By Anthony Brandt
Alfred A. Knopf, 28.95

Reviewed by Russell A. Potter

Do we really need another recounting of the quest for the Northwest Passage? After all, the task has been assayed a number of times in recent years, by the likes of James Delgado, Ann Savours, and Martin Sandler; just last year, it was given a magisterial overview by Glyn Williams. It was with this doubt in my mind that, somewhat wearily, I opened Anthony Brandt's The Man Who Ate His Boots, and found that the answer, after all, was a resounding "Yes." Brandt has certainly done his homework, and yet his writing is anything but a term paper; by turns lively, mischievous, and dryly ironic, his prose is an adventure in itself, and deeply satisfying fare for either the neophyte or the traveler who thinks he has been there before. Even Sir John Franklin -- who, as the title implies, provides the dramatic continuity of this book -- seems to step freshly forth from the two-dimensional portraits which were so often made of him.

Part of this is due to Brandt's deft touch with the mood of our times, one in which we both crave heroes and (not to put too fine a point on it) devour them. Remarkably, he manages to satisfy both urges, giving us at once the mythic, Arthurian Franklin with his powers of persistence and kindness to mosquitoes, as well as the overweight bumbler afflicted with an especially bad case of the cultural myopia endemic to his times. He sees these aspects not as contradictory, but complementary; with a Keatsian sense of negative capability, he keeps them both in his eye. Brandt also has a keen nose for just the sort of refulgent details -- those diamonds in the coal-heap of history -- which illuminate the narrative from within. Thus we hear of Franklin's avoidance of Leicester Square, lest someone recognize him from his portrait in the Panorama there; of Sir John Ross's insistence that sunlight altered the motion of the magnetic needle; and of the pseudonymous "Voyageur" who (quite alone among the debates of the day) suggested that the "Esquimaux" rather than the Admiralty offered the truest account of Franklin's fate.

There are no new revelations here. Mr. Brandt freely states that he has drawn entirely from printed sources, and not delved into any handwritten journals or correspondence. He comes, not as would a historian, to sift every particular, but rather to scry out the larger lay of the land, and bring it, along with all its intangibles, back to the armchair explorer. It's a task he undertakes with particular verve and style, and it has rarely been so well done.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Furs and Frontiers in the Far North

Furs and Frontiers in the Far North: The Contest among Native and Foreign Nations for the Bering Strait Fur Trade

by John R. Bockstoce
New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009
xxi plus 472 pp. Illustrations, appendix, glossary, bibliography, and index.

Reviewed by James A. Hanson

While Russian entrepreneurs and American and European maritime traders had opened commerce with Alaska and the Northwest Coast decades earlier, the vast region above Bering Strait remained unknown until 1819, when an American ship, the General San Martin under Captain Eliab Grimes, attempted to open trade with the natives. He quickly discovered that instead of being welcomed as the harbinger of commerce, his arrival was seen as a threat to the voluminous commerce between the Eskimos and the Chuckchis of Asia that had recently developed due to the expansion of trade between Russia and China for furs, ivory, tea, porcelain, and fabrics. Anxious to protect their roles as suppliers and middlemen, the natives were aggressive and bellicose.

The narrative proceeds both chronologically and geographically to explain the recent growth of this commerce, summarizing Russian expansion across Siberia to Alaska, the arrival of American and British competitors, first by sea and then by land via the Mackenzie River. Efforts to find the Northwest Passage and then the Franklin Expedition led to increased contact and exploration. These were followed by commercial whaling fleets, the transfer of Russian America to the United States, chaos from economic competition, destructive exploitation of resources, and starvation and disease. The book ends on the hopeful note of an evolving economy returning to the fur boom of the early twentieth century accompanied by better and more active government supervision.

Bockstoce presents the reader a complete package by discussing the furs and marine mammal products such as baleen and ivory that were important in the trade, how these were procured and in what quantities, and how the products were then transported and marketed. He does the same with trade goods, delineating the products supplied by indigenous traders, then the Russians, the British Hudson’s Bay Company traders, and whalers who wintered along the Bering Sea coast, and finally the goods sold by the Alaska Commercial Company, heir to the Russian American Company mercantile empire. The significant effects of certain introduced goods--- for example, iron for tools and even jewelry, firearms, and circassian tobacco, are wonderfully documented and make the book a real treasure.

In fact, this book is as near perfect as I think any book about the fur trade can be. It sensitively examines its subject from all sides and from top to bottom. The opinions and actions of the traders, the natives, and the politicians are presented; we learn about the goods, the products, the methods of conducting the trade, and the changing nature of commerce. All the issues, from liquor to destruction of food sources, from diseases to cultural dislocation, are discussed with succinctness, clarity, and dispassion. The bibliography and notes are most complete. The glossary and chronology will both prove useful to the reader. The maps are simply exquisite, and the illustrations are perfect accompaniments to the text. The book is a gold mine of information for historians, geographers, ethnologists, and antiquarians. It shows what can be done by a perceptive scholar who has complete command of the subject and of the English language. I am sure that such a combination is an occurrence worthy of our attention.

Editor's note: James A. Hanson is historian and publications editor at the Museum of the Fur Trade in Chadron, Nebraska

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Magnetic North: Notes from the Arctic Coast

The Magnetic North: Notes from the Arctic Coast
Sara Wheeler
Jonathan Cape
ISBN 9780224082211

Reviewed by Jonathan Dore

Sara Wheeler’s new book combines two of her main interests, travel writing and cold places. Although she has written about road trips in Chile and big game hunters in Kenya, her own magnetic attraction seems to be towards the poles: she was a writer-in-residence in Antarctica in 1994, producing the acclaimed Terra Incognita as a result; she then wrote a superbly accomplished biography of Apsley Cherry-Garrard, participant in and chronicler of Scott’s last expedition. By her own account she felt the Arctic lacked the grandeur and glamour of Antarctica, but mounting concern about climate change—most noticeable in the far north—and growing interest in the messily imperfect collision of indigenous human societies with a polar climate—absent in the far south—led her to spend some time with reindeer-herding Sámi. Following this trip she conceived a series of visits to each of the Arctic countries in turn, starting in far eastern Siberia and working eastwards through North America, Greenland, and back to Lapland and the western Russian Arctic. For unexplained reasons she omits Iceland, which although it sits just below the Arctic Circle is, in climate and landscape, a true piece of the Arctic nonetheless. It’s also home to the only indigenous Arctic culture with an ancient literature, a resource that would surely have helped us grasp not just the wildlife and icescapes of the North, but the interior life of its people.

It’s important to be clear what the book is not: it isn’t a travel book in the sense of recording a journey: its many separate journeys have no connection, forming a pointillistic series of disconnected placements at different times. The logistics of organizing travel to the Arctic are notoriously hair-raising, so the possibility of fashioning a single continuous journey must always have been remote, even if it could be sustained physically and mentally. Nevertheless, the lack of a single trajectory, and the tendency (in most chapters) to encamp at a destination rather than move around, gives the narrative a certain stasis, and the choice of locations a seeming randomness, that prevents the book having the sense of unity and purpose that travel writing based on a journey can give. The disjointed approach also reveals lacunae in the author’s experiences: Wheeler states confidently that Alaska’s Dalton Highway is “the only land route to the Arctic Ocean”, which must be news to travellers on the Dempster Highway and its northern extension to Tuktoyaktuk, which is after all just next door in the Yukon Territory. If her exposure to the Canadian Arctic hadn’t been limited to a couple of pinpricks (Iqaluit and a geological camp on Southampton Island) that’s the sort of mistake that might have been avoided.

What Magnetic North has instead is a meditative, and often melancholy, quality that tells us a lot about what it’s like to simply be in the Arctic, rather than travel through it: the sights and sounds, the ever-present insect annoyance, the subordination of all human activity to the exigencies of weather and geography, the contrasting emphases of isolation and communal solidarity, and, yes, the sense of stasis, embraced for the Zen enjoyment of it when you have no choice but to wait for others to take you from place to place.

More overt themes recur as central strands linking the chapters: the mutually uncomprehending encounters between indigenous hunter-gatherers and nation states, playing out with dispiriting similarity from one country to the next; the Arctic as a mineral bonanza whose value those nation states have rarely failed to appreciate to the last rouble, krone, or cent; the underlying spectre of climate change that greeted Wheeler at every place she stopped, and the related phenomena of bioaccumulation and polar amplification, which concentrate both industrial toxins and the effects of increasing temperature in the Arctic. Having set out as a climate-change agnostic, Wheeler admits to being convinced, at the end, of its stone-cold-sobering reality.

Alongside these themes the author deftly weaves in some nicely crafted vignettes that illuminate various aspects of the Arctic experience as reflected in the history, politics, or exploration of each of the countries she visits. Some of her most successful digressions include those on the Alaska pipeline (the defining presence in the background of all discussions of that state), on the air-route pioneer Gino Watkins, on the anarchic characters of the Klondike Gold Rush, on the skiing prowess of the Sámi and, at either end of the unfathomable Russian north, the sickening horror of the gulags. A few are less successful, such as the breakneck summary of 19th-century Arctic exploration, which deserves the same seriousness with which other subjects are treated rather than the throwaway flippancy displayed here. But the Arctic has so much longer and more varied a human history than the Antarctic that perhaps Wheeler’s southern experience simply misled her into underestimating the amount of material to be digested before writing a book that really partakes of that richness. Anyone wanting an expertly informed—and elegantly written—account of the Arctic’s human history might want to seek out Robert McGhee’s The Last Imaginary Place (2006), but for those wanting a sympathetic, engaged, and multivarious survey of the state of the Arctic today, Magnetic North is a valuable and enjoyable read.

Editor's note: This review appears courtesy of the Times Literary Supplement, in which a shorter version appeared on 12 February 2010

Friday, January 1, 2010

Carl Hagenbeck's Empire of Entertainments

Carl Hagenbeck's Empire of Entertainments.

Eric Ames

Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2008

Reviewed by Russell A. Potter

When the name of Carl Hagenbeck comes up these days, it's most often in reference to his innovations in the design of zoos -- and justly so, as he was certainly the first to place animals in realistic-seeming environments. His other accomplishments, however, were far more varied -- and in certain aspects troubling -- than that. He was an early, and persistent exhibitor of humans from exotic lands; his built environments were modelled not on the actual places the animals lived, but on massive panoramas and cycloramas in which a daub of paint was as good as an iceberg; he was a pioneering maker of wildlife films, but the animals in them were most often shot and killed on camera; and perhaps most significantly, he is the only one of many such exhibitors from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries whose establishment -- the Hamburg Tierpark -- still stands.

Eric Ames' remarkable new study is the first full-length account of Hagenbeck's career in English. It's also the first study in any language to consider his life's work in the context of our modern understandings of zoology, anthropology, and visual culture. It's lucidly written, in a manner that will delight both the specialist and the casual reader, and it's amply illustrated and beautifully designed. It also reveals some very troubling chapters in the history of zoos and exhibitions, including unexpected connections -- between zoos, panoramas, and early film -- and uncomfortable juxtapositions, such as Hagenbeck's placing human and animal exhibits side-by-side, or his "safari" films. And yet we must not be too quick to condemn such entertainments, for as Ames makes increasingly clear as the book progresses, this is also our history -- the history of our curiosity, our demand to see the wonders of the natural world, and of our own long-held yet half-articulated assumptions about the function of cultural spectatorship.

Ames begins by laying out the territory, carefully articulating the history of 'themed spaces,' and of their rise in the age of industrial expansion and world population growth. His account is clear and fluid, drawing effectively on Foucault and Baudrillard without ever, even for a moment, descending into theoretical gobbledegook. He makes fascinating connections and contrasts between the cultural "museum" -- at which, by its very nature, the actual living subjects of its displays are absent -- and the ethnographical show, in which the presence of those very subjects -- however we may regard the ethics of such displays today -- guaranteed their authenticity. Hagenbeck's genius, as Ames describes it, was in realizing that the authenticity of his themed spaces depended on the seamless linkage between the scenic evocation of place and the presence of its animal and human "inhabitants."

The centerpiece of this progression lies in the history of Hagenbeck's "Eismeer" or 'Sea of Ice' panorama. Originally, much like the managers of other travelling menageries, Hagenbeck made do with simple flat painted backdrops to add whatever scenic elements might emphasize an animal's exotic origins. These were as generic as in any circus or carnival, and as a result added little to the perception of authenticity. Hagenbeck made his first innovation by employing moving panoramas, which added a narrative element missing in such flat panels, and grouping animals together by their region of origin. But with the enormous living panorama he designed for his Tierpark, he outdid himself and by old craft created new art -- new enough that, like Robert Barker's original panorama design in 1796, Hagenbeck had it patented.

The patent diagram is reproduced in Ames's book, and a colored detail serves as its frontispiece. Here we see the spectator -- a man with a bowler hat and a cane -- actually thrust in among the environment upon which he gazes. Just beyond him, past a low barrier of ice and stone, seals frolic in an artificial lagoon. Nearby, a flock of penguins wanders about, and an "Eskimo" stands beside his wooden hut. On the next tier, behind a trench hidden from view, polar bears stroll about a second lagoon, while at the highest point, mountains of ice and snow loom over the entire scene. Combining stage ideas such as false perspective with the blending of painted and built environments common in cycloramas of the era, Hagenbeck's exhibition used animals, humans, and a built environment to amplify each others' authenticity. Of course, we all know that there are no Eskimos in Antarctica, nor any penguins in the Arctic -- but nevertheless the presence of one increases the felt authenticity of the other.

There were, of course, trade-offs in Hagenbeck's system. The deep trenches and barriers needed to separate the seals from their natural predators had themselves to be obscured, so that their artifice would not undercut the scene. The "Eskimos" in this arrangement were actually the animals' trainers and keepers in northern costume (their seal-skin coats had to be replaced with cloth replicas after it became clear that the polar bears regarded anything in a seal's skin as a sort of seal). Actual Eskimos were also a part of Hagenbeck's exhibitions, but he could not risk putting them in the midst of his specially-built enclosure. Instead, along with various groups of African tribespeople, they were placed on opposite sides of a nearby lagoon, where the notion of the 'meeting of extremes' was the dominant trope, and geographical difference rather than similarity drove the spectacle.

The arrangements necessary to secure both animals and humans for display are also detailed by Ames, and here the story is a far grimmer one. Like many other zoo and circus managers, Hagenbeck relied upon a number of agents and intermediaries to secure living creatures for his exhibits, keeping his own hands clean, metaphorically speaking. And yet of course it was the knowledge that Hagenbeck would pay handsomely that created this secondary market. In Labrador, there was a roaring trade in Inuit, with several different entities competing for this human market. The pressure on the indigenous population was so great that, early in 1911, the legislature of Newfoundland and Labrador explicitly banned the taking of Inuit for human exhibition. The ban did not, however, much deter Hagenbeck, who found other means to secure "Eskimo" performers. In November of 1911, he hired the troupe led by John C. Smith and Esther Enutseak for his "Nordland" exhibition, happily taking on a group with nearly twenty years experience on the "show" circuit, many of whose younger members had been born on the road and had been no closer to the North Pole than London.

Ames does a capable and thorough job of documenting Hagenbeck's activities both in acquiring new 'specimens' and designing new exhibits, no mean feat considering the variety of his shows and the length of his career. Remarkably, his business emerges as one of the key links between older pre-cinema technologies such as the panorama, and the emerging world of film. Hagenbeck realized early on that his menagerie could serve more than one purpose; like his contemporary, American zoo and studio owner William Selig, he knew that film audiences would pay good money to see authentically-staged dramas featuring "wild" animals alongside humans. And yet, unlike most of Selig's animal films, Hagenbeck's great theme was not simply a journey through the perils of the jungle but the "hunt" -- and a hunt to the death was the biggest draw of all. To this end, he chose animals from his park that were old, or infirm, and thus could be considered expendable. The directors then staged elaborate scenes, whether in the Arctic or the "African" jungle, in which, just as in his park, some natural barrier -- a river, say -- would keep his human actors safe until the final, decisive moment. And then, while the cameras rolled, the great animals would be shot and killed, demonstrating once more the dominance of Man over Animal.

Hagenbeck's films -- among which was one"Eisbärjagd," which featured the death of a polar bear, along with sea lions, seals, and walruses, have mostly, unfortunately, been lost; only one, Løvejagten -- a Danish film made with two lions purchased from Hagenbeck -- survives, but it is difficult to see. Nevertheless, the connection between the kind of authenticity conveyed by a zoo with a "natural" setting and that conferred by a film, is clear enough. Hagenbeck's business, in this sense, forms a vital evolutionary link between both the old panoramas and menageries,through early zoos, to modern entertainments such as the iMAX film, The Serengheti.

Remarkably, Hagenbeck's zoo is currently undertaking a revival and reconceptualization of its original "Eismeer" panorama, dubbed the neue Eismeer, which is presently under construction. Once again combining old and new technologies, it will, when complete, be the first new outdoor display of its kind in more than a century.

Ames's book recounts all these histories with verve and detail, and his text is richly annotated with images, and supported with copious notes. Few of these images have been reproduced outside of Germany, and many have only recently been discovered. Ames has worked closely with the current archivist of the Hamburg Tierpark, and his research in other world archives brings unparalleled depth to a history which was, in the past, very poorly documented and ill-understood. Ames's book casts a rich and provocative light into this previously unrecounted history, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in the history of the human fascination with the exotic, the history of zoos, the history of film, or of cultural spectacles of all kinds.