By John Wilson
Scholastic Canada, CDN$ 14.99
Reviewed by Kristina Gehrmann
In Graves of Ice, author John Wilson tells the story of Franklin’s Lost Expedition as part of the I am Canada series, a collection of stories about adventure and exploration geared toward a pre-teen audience. He has explored the same theme previously in the novel North with Franklin: The Lost Journals of James Fitzjames; and in the young-adult book Across Frozen Seas. A biography of Sir John Franklin - Traveller on Undiscovered Seas is also part of his repertoire of many historical books and novels.
The story is told from the viewpoint of one of the expedition's boys. Eighteen-year-old George Chambers can read and write, works as a clerk, and thanks to his father’s connections manages to get a spot aboard HMS Erebus, one of the ships to sail for the Arctic on Sir John Franklin’s much-awaited expedition. They are to leave England in May of 1845 to find and complete a Northwest-Passage through the Arctic, building on the achievement of former explorers. The general consensus is that there is merely a small part of the Passage yet to be discovered, that it is theirs for the taking, and that with the aid of modern technology it will now be claimed once and for all.
But a year or so before, our protagonist meets another boy: Davy, a half-orphan, who earns a modest living muck-raking in the mud. Davy invites George on a “treasure hunt” in the churchyard at night, and George, eager for adventure, goes along. It is in the following scene that the stark contrast between the two boys’ backgrounds and upbringing becomes most apparent. The reader notices that Davy intends to steal a corpse from the grave; but to George in all his stunning naïveté this doesn’t occur – indeed, he asks upon digging up the coffin, surprised, “The treasure’s in the coffin?”
Only then does he realize what they’re about to do. Horrified, he wants to get away, but Davy’s companion, a grave robber named Jim, gets ready to kill George, but then Davy steps in and stabs Jim to death, saving George’s life. The latter is now even more shocked to know what his new acquaintance is capable of, and wants nothing more to do with him and his life of crime.
In the next year, George has almost forgotten this scary episode when, to his horror, he finds the same grave-robbing street urchin serving alongside him as a cabin boy on HMS Erebus. Although they work on the same tasks, try to put their awkward start behind them and get along with each other, the differences in their personalities create conflict throughout the book. Davy is a tough kid who grew up in a harsh dog-eat-dog world, not always hiding his deep-seated suspicion of the aloof officers (“toffs”), while George, the well-mannered, slightly naïve young gentleman gets along well with Commander Fitzjames whom he’s been assigned to, shares the officers’ optimism about the expedition’s goals, and trusts them to make the right decisions for the good of all.
The journey starts off well enough. George and Davy have plenty of work to do, attending to the officers, assisting the cook, and learning to climb the rigging. They also make friends with fellow sailors. One of these, a Royal Marine named William Braine, will already be familiar to some readers as one of the expedition’s famous ice mummies exhumed in 1986.
As this book is intended for younger readers, it's not as long and descriptive as one might expect from a novel. Certain events are merely mentioned or implied and not shown, such as incidents of cannibalism that have occurred among Franklin’s men in the Arctic. A Franklin enthusiast might also feel that the officers’ characters are too roughly outlined and have not been done justice, but Crozier and Co. are not the focus of this book. The protagonists’ characterization is splendid. The often-overlooked ships’ boys David and George become more than mere names on the muster rolls, and one finds it easy to believe that this is how their real namesakes might have been.
And although the story is very compact the author has included many historically relevant and well-researched details: the provisioning and equipment of Her Majesty’s ships Erebus and Terror, scientific work and everyday routine aboard; and – most curiously – Commander Fitzjames’ not-so-glamorous background, a mystery that was uncovered only very recently and may, so I hope, inspire new characterizations of him in future works of fiction.
Once Erebus and Terror are beset in ancient ice off King William Island in September of 1846, the mortality rate on Franklin’s expedition rises. And contrary to the expectation, the ice seems to have no intention of releasing them even in the following summer. In April 1848, a group of 105 survivors, weakened by cold and sickness, know that they have no choice but to abandon the ships at least for a season’s hunting, and even then their prospects are grim: They are too numerous to shoot enough game to keep the dreaded scurvy at bay.
So much for the relatively few facts that are known. To these, the author adds several more fictional puzzle parts to show how the situation could have unfolded. For example, a group of Inuit visit the beset ships and their crews – and George tries to convince Davy that they actually have a lot to learn from these “savages”, to which Davy replies, “I shall hold with good old English ways”, illustrating the expedition leaders’ and organizers’ belief that whatever worked in the past surely will be successful today also. The discrepancy between the seemingly clear Northwest-Passage on a map and the reality of confusing, dangerous, unpredictable Arctic ice mazes was simply not yet understood.
Eventually George witnesses a mutiny, led by none other than his presumed friend Davy, and for a moment he is torn between loyalty to him and to his captain, Fitzjames. The uprising fortunately does not result in bloodshed but it leaves George in doubt: has he chosen the right side? Who will end up being right about which way to turn for rescue? This question may now prove critical.
Graves of Ice is a great introduction to the fascinating mystery of the Franklin Expedition for both young and adult readers. In fictional works on this subject, every author and novel offers a different view of how the expedition could have met its fate. The possibilities are many, and this book is a realistic scenario in which the puzzle parts seem to fit together well.