Monday, November 5, 2012

Dangerous Work: Diary of an Arctic Adventure

Dangerous Work: Diary of an Arctic Adventure

by Arthur Conan Doyle; Edited by Jon Lellenberg and Daniel Stashower

University of Chicago Press, $35

Reviewed by Russell A. Potter

That Sir Arthur Conan Doyle "came of age in the Arctic," celebrating his 21st birthday at nearly 80 degrees north, is one of those little diamonds of fact in whose facets all kinds of unexpected light is prismed. For, although the editors don't mention it, Doyle was born in May of 1859, the very month that Sir Leopold McClintock came upon the last note left by Sir John Franklin's men on King William Island, and although Doyle describes his shipboard service as a bit of a "lark," the future creator of Sherlock Holmes was surely drawn to the Arctic partly for its air of unsolved mysteries,  implacable ice, and uncharted hazards. It featured in two of his stories -- "The Captain of the Pole Star" (based on the same experiences this diary recounts) and, somewhat less directly, in "Black Peter," from the Holmes canon, both included in the present volume.

Lellenberg and Stashower have done an admirable job in presenting this material, and the volume encompasses both a complete facsimile of the actual diary -- filled with Doyle's illustrations, some of them full-page or folding -- and a transcription of the same with copious notes.  These, however, are directed mostly at readers who will know Doyle from his Holmes stories, and don't -- alas -- provide much in the way of Arctic context.  For instance, although Doyle's ship, the "Hope," sails in the company of the Peterhead whalers "Erik" and "Windward," one will not learn from these notes that both vessels later played key roles in the relief of the Peary Arctic Expedition in 1899-1900 (though  the Windward's bringing home of Nansen is mentioned). In fact, there's not much about any earlier Arctic expeditions, with the exception of the fictionalized one of Mary Shelley's "Captain Walton" in Frankenstein.

Doyle's journal, like that of Walton, is framed at first with a series of letters home, then quickly moves on to the daily business of the ship. Comic relief is offered with a boxing match between Doyle and the ship's steward, which -- since the seaman was short and unacquainted with sparring -- ended with Doyle landing most of the blows, and later overhearing the steward's admiration: "He's the best surrr-geon we've had! He's blackened my e'e!"

Doyle seems to have made a similarly favorable impression on the rest of the crew, finding the Captain, John Gray, an especially congenial comrade.  The ship's first stop was at the edge of the pack ice, where there were baby seals to be clubbed, an activity in which Doyle endeavored to do his best, though remarking "it is bloody work dashing out the poor little beggars brains while they look up with their big dark eyes into your face." He fell into the water several times, once -- not being noticed -- nearly fatally, but was no worse the wear for it, enduring the well-meant gibes of crew and Captain, who dubbed him "the great northern diver."

The journal itself, aside from a few amusing anecdotes such as these, continues on a fairly pedestrian manner; there are accounts of various hunts, of the chasing and securing of two (disappointingly small) whales, and a fair number of days with "nothing to do but grouse, and so we did." Doyle's handwriting is fairly readable once one gets used to it, and his drawings -- as good of ships and animals as any nautical amateur, though dismal at people -- provide numerous delightful illustrations of the account. The tale of one "John Thomas"-- a pet sea-snail Doyle kept in a jar -- is told with high drollery, concluding with an obituary in which the dear departed is praised for "never looking down upon his smaller associates because they were protozoa while he could fairly lay claim to the high family of Echinodermata." It is charming, but were it not the work of Doyle, it would scarcely be distinguished among ship-board narratives.

But of course, it was written by Doyle. And it offers many enticing details to the very early part of his career: that while on ship he devoured Carlyle's On Heroes and Hero-Worship; that in his first medical practice, his consulting room was adorned with Esquimaux sealskin pants, along with the bones of a bladdernose seal he shot himself; that he launched his public speaking career with a lecture on the Arctic in December of 1883, mentioning Davis, Baffin, Hudson, and Parry; and that two early publications on the Frozen Regions -- "The Captain of the Pole Star" as well as an essay, "Glamor in the Arctic," which ran in the Idler -- were among his very first published works. Reading the essay and the fictional tales, one can't help but see in Doyle a wily brain at work, a brain more clever by far than the somewhat conventional skull in which it found itself encased. Such a mind could spin the merest straws of an uneventful polar voyage into gripping tale of dark moods leading to Arctic madness amidst the frosty Sirens of snow and ice.

This visually very pleasing volume is sturdily bound, beautifully printed, and very reasonably priced. And although, in terms of life on the Arctic seas, its contribution is quite modest, it gives us a truly singular and delightful insight into the mind and habits of a man who would, not long after, bring to life two of the most enduring characters in the history of literature.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Arctic Journals of John Rae

The Arctic Journals of John Rae

Selected and Edited by Ken McGoogan

Victoria, BC: TouchWood Editions, 2012

312 pp. , $19.95

Reviewed by Russell A. Potter

The welcome publication of the journals of Dr. John Rae, the man who filled in the last crucial blanks in the northern coastline of North America, now fills a notable blank on the shelves of history; his is the last personal narrative of a major explorer during the search for Sir John Franklin to be published, one hundred and fifty-eight years after the latest events it recounts. There is considerable irony in the chief reason for this delay, which is doubtless that Rae searched too well, uncovering things that the British Admiralty, and large segments of the British public, would have preferred remained covered up. His accounts of Inuit testimony as to Franklin's men resorting to cannibalism shocked the sensibilities of the day, and were vociferously denied not only by Charles Dickens, but by many others in more recent times, despite the clear forensic evidence since gathered which has proved this testimony true.  Rae's own words still speak most capably in his defense, and we must be grateful to Ken McGoogan and TouchWood editions for bringing them back to us in a beautiful and compact new edition.

The format of the book, though, may be a bit confusing at first to some readers; it opens with several passages from the "lost" section of Rae's autobiography, missing from the manuscript at the Scott Polar Research Institute, then partially recovered by McGoogan in a series of extended quotations in David Murray Smith's compendium of Arctic voyages. Smith's commentary and sections of Rae's text are given together, which makes for somewhat jarring transitions between the rather pompous language of Smith, and the plain speaking of the intrepid Orcadian. There can be gleaned, however, from these pages, some items of considerable interest to the armchair Franklin searcher of today, particularly in Rae's extended comments on the paucity of wood amid the Inuit he encountered. Rae believed that this was clear evidence that they had not found either of Franklin' ships as of 1854, which would effectively date the finding of the ship at Oootjoolik to after that point; certainly by the time McClintock encountered the Inuit near Booth Point in 1859, wood was remarkably abundant.

The second, and largest section of the book contains Rae's full account, published in his lifetime, of his first Arctic expedition in 1846-47; while it of necessity contains nothing about Franklin, it is remarkable to consider how well and (for the most part) how comfortably Rae lived off the land, at the very moment when Franklin's men, holed up in their frozen ships, were contemplating that same land with fear, so dependent were they on stored provisions.

The remainder of the book contains a series of texts, including Rae's initial report, followed by Dickens's two-part attack on the credibility of Rae's witnesses, Rae's rejoinder (with Dickensian interruptions), and finally the full text of Rae's official report as reprinted in Household Words.  The astute reader may notice, the third time around, that there are a few pesky inconsistencies in these reprinted sources. As an example, Rae's original report opined that some of Franklin's men must have lived into the spring following, as "fresh bones and feathers of geese" were found (this is given accurately by Smith, and in the present volume on p. 33), whereas the typesetters at Bradbury & Evans, publishers of Household Words, mis-read this as "fish-bones and feathers," leading whole generations of Franklin researchers off on a wild fish chase (this error is faithfully reproduced in the text taken from HW on p. 301).

The general reader, happily, need not trouble over such minutae, but will benefit from this volume in two significant ways.  First, Rae's own account gives us the most vivid description of the rigors of extended journeys by boat and sledge, the longest ever undertaken with success by a single individual in this period, in the face of squalls, storms, frostbite, and terrain so rough that it wore out a brand new pair of moccasins in two hours. Second, until now there has been no readily-available and complete account in Rae's own words of the entirety of his discoveries relating to the fate of Franklin.  This new edition remedies this lack, and should have a place on the shelves of anyone interested in Arctic exploration, during the Franklin era or any other.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Cairns: Messengers in Stone

Cairns: Messengers in Stone

by David B. Williams

Seattle: The Mountaineers Books. $15.95

Reviewed by Russell A. Potter

On first seeing this book, some may ask, how much can you really say about cairns?  After all, for most who know the term, it calls to mind the trail-marking heaps of rocks that guide hikers above the treeline, or where landmarks are scarce; such modest, utilitarian markers hardly seem to call for an entire volume, even this modest one of 192 pages.  And yet on actually opening the book, one finds that -- in a manner rather like cairns themselves -- it contains a remarkable variety and amount of information within its various nooks and crannies, so much so that one marvels not at its extent, but its compactness.

The feeling grows as one reads through the chapters, each a neat conglomeration of historical, cultural, and scientific facts. The most expected topic -- "Cairns on the Trail" is followed quickly by chapters on the geology and ecology of cairns, both of which offer an enormously engrossing and succinct account of the deeper significance of all the things one sees in cairns. Did you know that the thin accretions on the outside of rocks have a name, and that these -- along with the size of the lichens on a rock's upper surfaces -- can be used to accurately date a cairn's age?  Did you know there was an ancient species of tree in Lebanon which survives only because its seedlings found shelter in cairns? Did you realize the enormous influence of stones upon an ecosystem, so great that lifting a few rocks and stacking them in a pile both destroys and creates unique micro-climates and colonies of life?

Each of Williams's historical and scientific disquisitions is interwoven with witty footnotes, evocative excerpts from the reflections of others upon cairns,  and John Barnett's tasteful illustrations, so that one never feels that the knowledge imparted becomes too weighty.  For my part, the most delightful sections are those on expedition cairns, particularly in the Arctic.  Williams gives a brief but resonant account of the Franklin expedition of 1845, and how cairns served both as its markers, its mailboxes, and -- ultimately -- its tombstones. A meditation on the origins of a Greenland cairn discovered by George Strong Nares reads like a miniature mystery novel, and if every loose end is not tied up at its conclusion, we nevertheless learn a great deal, including something about the limits of our knowledge.

Some of the book's most poignant passages describe the destruction of cairns or their wholesale carting-off, a stone at a time, leaving a terrible sense of a void where once there was an abundance.  And yet, for every stone that is taken, more than one is often left behind somewhere else.  The leaving of stones, from megalithic times to the present, begins to appear as an essential, almost primordial aspect of what it means to be human.

Charles Dickens once wrote that "“No one who can read, ever looks at a book, even unopened on a shelf, like one who cannot," and having read Williams's book, I would say the same thing about cairns: once we learn, in this deceptively modest volume, how to read cairns, we will never look upon them the same way again.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Inuit Tales of Terror

Having heard about the publications of Inhabit Media a few months ago via an article in Quill & Quire, I eagerly awaited review copies of their new series of children's books based on Inuit tales and legends. When the package finally arrived, I was frankly dazzled by the array of beautifully illustrated books that spilled forth, particularly by Rachel Qitsualik's The Shadows that Rush Past, grippingly illustrated by Emily Fiegenschuh and Larry MacDougall; as a longtime fan of Ms. Qitsualik's "Nunani" column in the Nunatsiaq News, I knew this would be a good one -- but the wealth of other, unexpected treasures was equally impressive.

Here at the Arctic Book Review we don't usually review many children's books, but these -- among the first Inuit-penned books of their kind -- seemed worthy of special mention. I've since read them, and sent several out to others of our reviewers, but wanted to give an overview of the series here, just to alert readers to the wealth of new and significant titles that are now available. And finally, a word of caution: as those who have read either traditional Inuit tales or the imaginative works of Inuit writers -- Larry Milliman's A Kayak Full of Ghosts and Alootook Ipellie's adult collection Arctic Dreams and Nightmares come to mind -- will know, these tales often have dark, or darkly comic twists, different but easily equal to the grimmest of Grimm's tales. If your kids like really scary books -- Stephen Gammell, for instance -- then I am certain they'll love these volumes. And, completely without persuasion or preaching, they will learn a few things about Inuit culture and history that they're unlikely to discover anywhere else.

The Shadows That Run Past is easily the best of the bunch, as I expected -- Ms. Qitsualik is a practiced storyteller, whose voice immediately takes readers into the circle of traditional narrative. Her version of the story of the Amautalik, a fearsome creature with an amaut made of caribou antlers who steals children, is particularly chilling, and is rightly featured on the cover. And yet I must confess that The Legend of the Fog, a terrifying odyssey of a hunter's taken prisoner by giants who refer to him simply as "food," gave me just as good a scare, with Cape Dorest elder Qaunaq Mikkigak's tale perfectly complemented by Joanne Schwartz's masterful full-page illustrations. The other two books, Marion Lewis's Kaugjagjuk and Sakiasi Qaunaq's The Orphan and the Polar Bear are both teaching tales about young boys struggling with the journey to manhood who receive vital help from natural spirits. Qaunaq's book is the more conventional of the two, as in it the young boy receives help from the polar bear spirit and returns to his band as a full-fledged hunter. And yet it is Kaugjagjuk, to my mind, which is the richer tale; here the boy shamed and mistreated by his tribe is taught harsh lessons by the spirit of the Moon; he indeed returns strengthened, but does not take up a place with his band, leaving them behind with a deep sense of shame at how they treated him. It's a strong story, but a good one, and although it might put some parents off, will give young readers a much more forceful understanding of the traditional Inuit worldview.

Inhabit Media, located in Iqaluit, has these and many more books available and in the works. They are finely written, brilliantly illustrated, and well-printed on durable stock to survive the many readings I am sure they will all have in the hands of any young readers lucky enough to get hold of them. We here at the ABR wish them all the best with their publishing endeavors.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

An Empty Balloon

The Ice Balloon, by Alec Wilkinson

NY: Alfred A. Knopf: 2012

233 pp. $25.95

Reviewed by Lawrence Millman

Obsessed in equal measure with balloons and the North Pole, Salomon Andrée was responsible for one of the most eccentric of all assaults on the Pole. With two fellow Swedes, Nils Strindberg and Knud Fraenkel, Andrée set off from Dane Island in Svalbard in a large hydrogen-filled balloon, the Eagle. The date was July 14, 1897. Thirty-three years later, the remains of the three men (literal remains: Andrée's head and upper torso were missing) were found on White Island in northeastern Svalbard.Their journals and Strindberg's photographs, which turned out to be in somewhat better condition than the men themselves, detail an expedition that seemed doomed almost from the moment the Eagle's ballast bags were cut away.

Enter Alec Wilkinson, author of previous books about, among other subjects, moonshine and Pete Seeger. In The Ice Balloon, he takes on the Andrée balloon expedition with less than successful results. Wilkinson has never been closer to the Arctic than, it would seem, Stockholm, Sweden. This obliges him to recycle earlier accounts of Arctic expeditions, most of them in English (he admits that he doesn't know Swedish), or perpetuate the usual cliches about the unpleasantness of Arctic conditions. Unfortunately, a good many contemporary writers about the Arctic do the same thing: surf the web, read a batch of older texts, but for God's sake don't ever go to the Arctic.

Indeed, The Ice Balloon seems to consist primarily of recycled accounts of 19th century Arctic expeditions. As nearly as I can tell, the only common denominator among these expeditions is that they were all damnably uncomfortable. When Wilkinson finally gets around to describing the Andrée expedition, his laconic narrative style, derived from his tenure as a New Yorker staff writer, hardly does justice to the miseries of Andrée and his companions. Likewise, he never pursues or even contemplates certain important issues, such as what the drift of the Andrée expedition might indicate about polar currents. When Wilkinson does step out of his role as a recycler, he often ends up making mistakes. For example, Flora Island in Franz Josef Land is not "near" Svalbard, unless you consider 250 nautical miles "near."

The book devotes only a paragraph to discussing what killed Andrée and his companions. The most recent evidence suggests botulism, but Wilkinson dismisses this because he says that bacteria can't survive in very cold conditions. He's wrong, of course. They can survive in any condition -- the more extreme, the better. He dismisses another possibility, trichinosis, because the men don't refer to its symptoms in their journals. But if you're simply trying to survive from day to day, I dare say you're not going to commit every last one of your symptoms to your notebook. And with respect to trichinosis, Andrée and his men did in fact eat uncooked polar bear meat, an excellent way to get the parasitic Trichina worm in your system.

At its best, The Ice Balloon reads like Arctic Disasters 101. At its worst, it's as uninformed as any book I've read about the Arctic in quite a while. This is a pity, since there's a real need for a good book in English about the man who, upon being criticized for his recklessness by General Adolphus Greely, famously responded: "When something happened to your ships, how did you get back? I risk three lives in what you call a foolhardy attempt, and you risked how many? A shipload?"