Friday, October 20, 2023

Tracking the Franklin Expedition

Tracking the Franklin Expedition of 1845: The Facts and Mysteries of the Failed Northwest Passage Voyage

by Stephen Zorn

McFarland & Co., $39.95

Reviewed by Russell A. Potter

The history of those who've written about about the Franklin expedition includes a long list of people who, while motivated by their fascination with the story, didn't "quit their day jobs." From Richard Cyriax (public health officer), to May Fluhmann (musician and telegraph operator), to Stephen J. Trafton (banker), most of those who have contributed to the larger story have been true amateurs -- that is, lovers of their subject -- rather than academically-trained historians.

To this list we can now add Stephen Zorn, a lawyer and journalist, as well as a former government official in Papua New Guinea. His book is different from most of its precursors, though, in that it does not propose any new single all-explaining theory of what happened -- on the contrary, it seeks rather to suss out the probable from the plausible, the established facts from the speculations, and (among the speculations) which stands on firmest ground.  Zorn bases his approach on what he calls a "quantum theory of history," one which readily allows that there are some uncertainties that simply can't be resolved. And, while I know of no Franklin-related mystery that is quite as uncertain as is Schrödinger's hypothetical cat (which is both alive and dead at the same time), it's a provocative model for an approach which takes uncertainty as a given, and resists (for the most part) the urge to hypothesize it away.

Zorn begins with the "known knowns" (a wry reference to the late Donald Rumsfeld's word salad about certainty), as good a brief summary of the whole Franklin mystery in a nutshell as any I've read. And then, one by one, it's on to a more detailed account of the same, giving important background on each figure in the expedition, and all that we know thanks to more than a century and a half of searching. He organizes the next few chapters around the classic cruxes: did Franklin consider sailing to the east of King William Island (or was he even aware that such a route existed); what routes Crozier considered as he reached his decision to desert the ships; whether or not they returned to them and when; and lastly the possible causes of their eventual demise. In that, I think that he's quite right that starvation and exhaustion, with a little help from their friends scurvy, lead poisoning (a factor certainly in the illness of some if not an all-encompassing explanation), along with exposure to the elements, were more than sufficient causes.

It's an excellent précis and guide to the full spectrum of the known unknowns of Franklin's last expedition, and it has the great advantage that it draws from and cites the large body of new work and understandings that has come from members of online communities such as the Remembering the Franklin Expedition Facebook group (also acknowledged in McGoogan's new book), as well as the latest archaeological and forensic studies. This makes it an excellent starting point for the newfound Franklinophile, to whom I would almost unreservedly recommend it.

My only caveat there is that, at several junctions in the narrative, Zorn goes out of his way to discredit Franklin personally, at one point referring to him as "the most lethal commanding officer in the history of the Royal Navy's Arctic service." He also asserts, quite incorrectly I feel, that Crozier's expressed reluctance to go to Erebus to dine with Sir John was a sign of personal animosity of some kind, and from which he also infers (again, incorrectly) that "Sir John was less than universally respected." The collected letters of the officers -- which Zorn draws from elsewhere -- clearly refute such a view; every single officer, and several other men of lower rank, speak with unstinting praise of his command, Crozier prominent among them. When, earlier in 1845, Crozier learned from James Clark Ross that he would most likely sail as second-in-command to someone else, he replied "I am quite ready to go second to our kind friend Sir John – with none else save and except yourself and Captain Parry would I go." There's nothing in any others of his letters to suggest that his view of Franklin changed.

Still, setting that issue aside, Zorn's book is in every other respect a breath of much-needed fresh air in a room in which sometimes, not out of ire but out of the great passion for the subject we Franklinites share, the discussions become too heated.

Wednesday, October 18, 2023

Searching for Franklin

Searching for Franklin: New Answers to the Great Arctic Mystery

By Ken McGoogan

Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre

$38.95 CAD

Reviewed by Russell A. Potter

Readers of the Arctic Book Review will be familiar with Ken McGoogan's many books that touch upon aspects of the Franklin expedition, perhaps most notably with Fatal Passage, a book which singlehandedly revived the reputation of Dr. John Rae, the brilliant Scottish surveyor and explorer who discovered the first direct evidence of Franklin's fate. Since then, both with Lady Franklin's Revenge and Dead Reckoning, McGoogan has greatly expanded our understanding not only of some of the behind-the-scenes maneuvering behind the heroic veneer of exploration, but also of the significant and lasting role of Indigenous peoples as guides and explorers in their own right.

So it would be an understatement to say that Searching for Franklin has been keenly anticipated by all who have taken an interest in the many and varied aspects of that famously lost explorer, the present reviewer among them. The approach of the book is somewhat different from what I'd initially expected, but by the end it succeeds in offering compelling new insights into the mindset of Franklin and other explorers of his era, along with a suggestive hypothesis as to the demise of his final expedition.

The book opens in conversation between McGoogan and Louie Kamookak, the late Inuit historian and friend to both of us, as well as to many others who went to King William Island in search of insight into the fate of Franklin and his men. It's great to hear Louie's voice again, resonating with that of his people and their ancestors, and lively with an often-humorous irony about the assumptions and obsessions of the various "Franklinites" he'd met through the years.

From there, we proceed to a lively retelling of events from Franklin's departure in 1845 through to Rae's and McClintock's discovery of what were to be, for a time, the final known traces of his lost men; it's a story that will be familiar to readers of McGoogan's earlier books. This sets the scene for the central portion of the book, which focuses not on Franklin's last command but his first, the Coppermine Expedition of 1819-22. The main theme here is of Franklin as 'the man who wouldn't listen' -- at least when it came to advice from his Dene guides -- which is surely a fair criticism. Of course, Franklin's deafness was not his alone; the entire apparatus of the British Admiralty and the Empire in general was quite hard of hearing when it came to Indigenous voices and knowledge.

The following chapters touch on several sundry aspects of the Franklin mystery, from the box dug up from under the Paddy Gibson memorial in Gjoa Haven (which some believed held Franklin records, but turned out to be full of sand), some chapters from the peculiar career of Franklin searcher Charles Francis Hall, and then finally to the discoveries of Franklin's ships in 2014 and 2016. After a brief detour to Jens Munk ('the second-worst disaster' of Arctic expeditions), we return to the Coppermine expedition and its key figures, particularly the Dene leader Akaitcho. Franklin, of course, comes off none to well in these histories -- I'm reminded of why, in his novel A Discovery of Strangers, Rudy Weibe has the Dene give Franklin the nickname "Thick English" -- but it was a bit frustrating as a reader to see so many of the remaining pages turn without a return to the story of the 1845 expedition.

It's just then, though, that McGoogan offers his own theory as to the surprising loss from among their numbers that clearly affected Franklin's men in their icebound ships: that eating improperly-prepared polar bear meat led directly to their death and disappearance. While it's entirely plausible, there's no direct evidence of the expedition having killed or eaten a bear --- indeed, they seemed poorly equipped for hunting of any kind. McGoogan cites an example of a bear killed by Akaitcho and eaten by Franklin's men in 1821; the Dene themselves did not eat bear meat. And yet the Inuit certainly do, and have for millennia; I've enjoyed it myself at a community feast in Clyde River. As long as the meat is well-cooked, the risk of trichinosis is relatively low, though of course one can't eliminate it entirely.

In his concluding chapter, McGoogan offers a sharp rebuttal to those who have, over the intervening years and today, hailed Franklin as a polar hero. He certainly had his flaws and limitations -- but then so do most "heroes" when you look closely at them. His sins seem in large part to be the common ones that nearly all Royal Navy commanders shared, among them insufficient trust in Indigenous knowledge, while his merits -- such as the love and loyalty he inspired in his men -- were his own. That said, I'm sure his reputation can stand a little correction; as Margaret Atwood once wryly observed (in a quote mentioned in the book), "every age has created a Franklin suitable to its needs." Perhaps this is the one for ours; only time will tell.

Thursday, October 12, 2023

The Search for Franklin: An Irish Connection

The Search for Franklin: An Irish Connection

By Kevin Cronin

Reviewed by Frank Michael Schuster

Appearing at first glance as a coffee table book due to the unusual landscape format and the quality of the cover and the printing in general, Kevin Cronin’s book turns out to be a self-published book of no more than 75 pages, but with excellently reproduced illustrations, photographs, maps and charts on almost every page. The book is clearly a labour of love.

In it, the author describes concisely but ironically -- and very appealingly -- his experiences in the Arctic in general, and on the trail of Sir John Franklin's last expedition lost in the ice in particular. The Dublin-chartered accountant discovered his love of the sea early, spending his holidays as a child with his grandfather in County Cork, Ireland, at and on the sea. In the mid-1980s, he accompanied Irish adventurer Paddy Barry on his Atlantic crossing in a Galway Hooker, a historic cargo sailing vessel.
After this adventure, in 1997 he and Paddy Barry and Jarlath Cunnane attempted to repeat Ernest Shackleton's legendary 1916 crossing (not 1913, as stated in the book) from Antarctica to South Georgia in a converted boat of the Endurance, which had sunk in the Antarctic ice. The undertaking came to an end when the replica of the James Caird capsized in the stormy polar sea. That didn't stop Cronin from continuing to embark on polar adventures with them, circumnavigating the North Pole from 2001-2005. In the process, he passed through both the Northwest and Northeast Passages in the sailing vessel Northabout, which was built by Cunnane. Irish filmmaker John Murray, who was there for the crossing of the Northwest Passage, filmed this as part for a film about John Franklin's expedition. This brought Cronin into contact with that story, which obviously fascinated him. 

They had met Dave Woodman and Tom Gross on King William Island during their transit of the Northwest Passage. Since the Northabout, after reaching Alaska, cruised in the North Pacific in 2002-2004 before taking on the Northeast Passage, Murray and Cronin decided to join the next expedition planned by these two well-known Franklin searchers and researchers in search of Franklin's missing ships. The two set off from Dublin via London, Edmonton and Yellowknife to Goja Haven in 2002 with little besides their camera equipment as hand luggage.  After Tom Gross had received them, the journey was to become even more adventurous, as they continued with two snowmobiles. Driven by two local Inuit, one pulled a sled with the tents and the rest of the equipment, the other the box of the magnetometer with which they wanted to scan the frozen sea in Willmot & Campton Bay west of Skull Island, because Dave Woodman was convinced after his analysis of Inuit tradition that one of Franklin's ships must have sunk in the vicinity. 
There was actually not enough room for Cronin, Gross and Murray. They therefore sat down in the box, which turned out not a great idea.
“The journey was bone-crushing”, Cronin writes:
The space in the caboose was not adequate for three people, and on one of our rest stops I examined the other gear-laden sled to see if we had another option. With some adjustment to the cargo I found that I could make a groove along the top of the sled that could accommodate me lying corpse-like on the top of the load. […] Tom helpfully pointed out that if the sled tipped over, I would be squashed. […] I had ample time to contemplate how and why I was finding myself in this mad situation as the sled heaved and roled under me and the wind and snow pummeled me unmercifully. Shur, what else would you be doing? (pp. 21-2)
This passage is just one example of the author's lively and amusing style. One certainly learns more about the results of this expedition from Woodman's field reports (for example), but here the expedition's everyday life comes alive. Caribou hunting or the building of igloos are described briefly but very vividly, as is life in a tent, which is anything but easy. How a night on King William Island in a tent designed for Irish rather than Arctic weather becomes an adventure the moment nature calls and you need to pass water, for example, Cronin also tells us. These are things you don't find in the classic expedition naratives of the 19th century, and hardly ever today. 

The search with the magnetometer in 2002 and the subsequent closer examination of the hotspots found in the recordings in 2004 did not lead to the discovery of HMS Erebus, because she lies on the seabed not to the west but to the east of Skull Island, and therefore remained undiscovered for another decade. They later found that the expedition's camp was scarcely a mile away from where Erebus sank -- within sight, so to speak.

Nevertheless, Kevin Cronin remained passionate about the Franklin Expedition even after the discovery of the two ships in 2014 and 2016, and he joined Tom Gross' search for Sir John Franklin's grave in the summer of 2018. After his previous experiences on the subject of getting around in the Arctic, he decided to prepare himself and practice driving an ATV (all-terrain vehicle) in advance. Therefore, he signed up at a Quad Adventure Centre in March 2018.
“I found the experience hair-raising but valuable. […] I consoled myself by imagining that the actual terrain on KWI could not be as bad as this artificial course that was especially designed to be as demanding as possible. It was worse!” (p. 49)
The way he writes about his expedition is fun to read, even if Franklin's grave has not been found, neither then nor later.

Those who are hoping for new insights into the Franklin expedition may wish to look elsewhere, but those who enjoy beautiful, amusing and entertaining books and are looking for a first-person idea of what it's like to travel through the polar regions will greatly enjoy reading this modest publication.

Wednesday, October 11, 2023

Coming soon!

Sunday, April 23, 2023


Wanderlust: An Eccentric Explorer, An Epic Journey, A Lost Age

by Reid Mitenbuler

New York: Mariner Books, 2023

495 pp: $45.00


Reviewed by Lawrence Millman

Arctic explorers often tend to be of a predacious breed.  Give them a destination like the North Pole or the Northwest Passage, and they go into veritable overdrive in an effort to reach it.  Consider Admiral Robert Peary.  “Mine at last!” he exclaimed upon attaining (or not attaining) the North Pole, as if he had just engineered a corporate takeover.

By contrast, the Danish polymath Peter Freuchen was not (in the words of his biographer Reid Mitenbuler) “a swashbuckling explorer type.”  Rather than venture after some sort of Grail, he wanted to experience the Arctic on its own terms, greeting its rough integrity with a rough integrity of his own.  He became anthropologist Knud Rasmussen’s assistant at the Thule trading post not because he wanted to trade with the Greenland Inuit, but because he wanted to live with them…and live with them he did, through proverbial through hell and high water.  That he died of a heart attack just prior to a televised overflight of the North Pole may be the Arctic’s revenge on him for having an actual goal.  

Mitenbuler documents Freuchen’s wanderlust, which took him not just to the Arctic, but also to the Amazon jungle,. Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, Holly-wood, and the White House.  Although all of these travels occurred in the first half of the 20th century, Freuchen often seems like he’d be a broad-minded contemporary.  For instance, he issued a warning about climate change as long ago as 1931.  He also championed civil rights, environmental stewardship, and animal rights.  He put his support of the Inuit not only into his books, but also into the 1933 film Eskimo, for which he ought to be considered the auteur.  Yet pretense was not his bailiwick.  Quite the contrary.  He lost his leg to frostbite and ended up with a prosthesis.  Writing to his artist friend Rockwell Kent, he said, “I’m doing just as well with my wooden leg as I did with my old meaten one.”

It’s hardly surprising that Wanderlust is the first biography of Freuchen in English.  After all, Freuchen himself wrote detailed accounts of his life in books like Vagrant Viking and Arctic Adventure, and potential biographers might have felt he’d already said what should be said about that life.  They might not have wanted to compete with his talent for storytelling, either.  Dare I say that his talent for embellishment makes his stories seem even better?

Mitenbueler’s biography is primarily a “just the facts, ma’am” sort of book.  

To get his information, the author dug into numerous archives, letters, and diaries as well as consulted Arctic experts like Kenn Harper and Dave Welky.  Who would have known that the Netsilik asked Freuchen whether Greenlandic Inuit had whiskers like his? And who would have known that Freuchen hoisted Hollywood actress Jean Harlow above his head to indicate his weight-lifting prowess? The result is what’s typically referred to as a page turner. 

On the other hand, the reader familiar with the Arctic might be a bit miffed by the book’s errors and anomalies.  For example, Mitenbuler says that no one lived in East Greenland at the time of Fridtjof Nansen’s 1888 ice cap crossing, a statement that’s obviously untrue. He commonly uses the ungrammatical phrase “Inuit people” to describe the Inuit and also says “Inuit man” rather than “Inuk.”  He refers to dire wolves and mammoths as being relatives of muskoxen when in fact these species are contemporaries rather than relatives.  And he describes one of Freuchen’s lady friends as living “northwest of Hudson Bay, not far from the current village of Rankin Inlet” — a geographical error, since Rankin Inlet is in the middle of western Hudson Bay.  The book contains no maps, so the reader can’t look at them and correct the blunders in the text.  No maps? How odd for a book whose subject traverses a goodly part of the world…

Its errors notwithstanding, Wanderlust brings to the reader’s attention one of the most enlightened as well as perhaps the most eccentric of all Arctic explorers.  None of the others assisted Jewish refugees during World War II or correctly answered a $64,000 question.  Nor did any of the others eat rock ptarmigan fecal matter cooked in seal oil and compare its flavor to Roquefort cheese.

Tuesday, April 18, 2023

Big Wolf

Big Wolf: The Adventurous Life of Frederick G. Schwatka

by Douglas W. Wamsley

Staunton, VA: American History Press, $28.95 (paper) $48.95 (hardcover)

Reviewed by David Woodman

Douglas W. Wamsley has established himself as a skilled biographer of nineteenth-century American explorers. In his last book, Polar Hayes: The Life and Contributions of Isaac Israel Hayes, M.D., Wamsley demonstrated meticulous research and attention to detail, often using obscure and rare primary sources to bring his subject and world to life. Most readers of this publication are familiar with Frederick Schwatka from his Arctic work and his valuable leadership of the Franklin Records Search Expedition of 1879. Wamsley’s new book, Big Wolf – The Adventurous Life of Lieutenant Frederick G. Schwatka, similarly brings the fuller details of this remarkable man’s life to a broad audience.

Wamsley starts his recounting with Frederick’s parents, industrious and energetic survivors, with the 4-year-old Frederick, of the rigours of the Oregon Trail. Growing up in the then-frontier lands near Astoria gave young Frederick character traits that later served him well – hardihood in, and love for, challenging outdoor pursuits and a hardworking determination to see his efforts through to completion. His experience with the local first nations peoples also fostered an acceptance and respect that would set him apart from many of his contemporaries. Companions described the young Frederick as “a gregarious gun-loving, ruddy-faced boy with a streak of independence” who was noted for his boyish pranks and self-deprecating humour.  

Next, Wamsley traces the young man’s development as a fledgling writer employed as a “printers devil” in his brother’s publication, where he “gained a sound schooling in the newspaper business” that would be useful in his later career. His restless ambition for a more active life led him to pursue a place at West Point Military Academy, where he graduated in the middle of his class and with an average number of disciplinary “demerits” (many resulting from “pranks” and “misplaced laughter.”) This mixture of writer and outdoorsman would become a core element of his later life.

After graduation, Schwatka spent seven years as a cavalry lieutenant on the western frontier. His physical endurance and cheerful personality were well suited to conducting long patrols in testing country, and he became inured to hardship while serving in isolated and often comfortless posts. Intellectually restless, Schwatka was granted extended leave to pursue law and medical degrees, which he completed successfully in 1875-6. Wamsley rightly concludes, “[a]t the age of 26 he had accomplished more than most persons would in a lifetime … [he] had succeeded as a student, soldier, outdoorsman, lawyer and physician.”

Not all of his military service was tedious. Returning from college, as part of General Crook’s division, Schwatka fought in battles at Tongue River and the Rosebud and led the cavalry charge at the Battle of Slim Buttes. His commanders mentioned his courage under fire; his former commander Anson Mills stated, “He could not speak well enough of the young lieutenant’s bravery in the field and his other soldierly qualities.” A soldier who served with him remarked, “A better or braver man never existed. He was kind-hearted and generous to a fault.” 

Unlike the prevailing attitude toward the enemy Indians as “savages,” Schwatka’s interest in, and respect for, the skills and culture of those he encountered are evident in his writings. His understanding, easygoing nature and diplomatic skills made him a frequent intermediary between the army and Sioux and Cheyenne leaders. He was welcomed into two tribes, and the Sioux gave him the name that serves as the title of this book (his later Inuit-given name, “Big Spectacles,” does not have the same impact.) 

The labour for which Schwatka is most famous was the Franklin Records Search of 1878-80. This expedition is covered in five of the book’s seventeen chapters. The main details of this expedition are well recorded in the contemporary accounts of his companions Gilder and Klutschak, but unfortunately, Schwatka’s private papers were lost during the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Luckily, a draft article about the expedition was rediscovered in 1965 and edited by Edouard Stackpole as The Long Arctic Search. Wamsley’s skillful retelling, weaving the main elements of these three accounts, should become the first reference for the general reader. Wamsley supplements these with other rarely-referenced sources, including newspaper accounts and speeches.  These, especially an interview given within days of his arrival with the New York Tribune, add helpful context and interesting details to enlighten even those familiar with the standard source material. Informative ethnological discussion and biographical asides of Schwatka’s companions are interspersed throughout and offer pleasant diversions from the straightforward chronological narrative.

The inclusion of modern Inuit traditions of the expedition, collected by David Pelly, augments the value of his treatment. His use of current scientific work on the wrecks of Franklin’s ships, and Dr. Douglas Stenton's recent terrestrial archaeological work, brings the story up to date. However, Wamsley scrupulously avoids speculative editorializing or analysis concerning these, as his purpose is not to attempt to solve this enduring mystery but as a biographer to recount his subject’s contribution.

On his return from the Arctic, Schwatka, having burned his bridges with the military establishment through his almost-continual leaves of absence and frequent bouts of binge drinking, unsuccessfully pursued a pension, which forced him to seek other revenue sources. Most men, having attained international fame as an explorer by age 31, would have settled down. With a new wife and daughter, he could have enjoyed a comfortable domestic life by falling back on his medical or legal training, but it was not in Schwatka’s nature. His post-Franklin life followed his established pattern of “a small cohesive group, combined with Indigenous peoples’ assistance, sound decision-making, and calculated risk-taking.” These consisted of unlikely business ventures and adventurous endeavours, resulting in many books, popular at the time but now largely forgotten, public-speaking events and a prodigious amount of often self-serving journalism. Despite his substantial writing output and public appearances, Schwatka’s self-promoting pursuit of fame and fortune was only mildly profitable. His far-flung business interests and busy schedule of cross-country public appearances rendered him a largely absentee husband and father. 

To maintain his fame and public interest, Schwatka fell back on his skills as an outdoorsman. His most significant exploration took place on the new American frontier - Alaska. Using his position as the personal aide to General “Bearcoat” Miles, the two men organized a military reconnaissance to the newly-acquired territory that would be a significant focus of Schwatka’s later career. He surveyed the Yukon River in 1883, followed by an unsuccessful assault on Mt. St. Elias two years later and a final expedition in 1891 to the unexplored White River valley deep in the Alaskan interior. His writing about these travels offers an interesting prequel to the Klondike gold rush that would overtake the region in 1896. As a contract explorer-with-a-pen, Schwatka pursued or created many opportunities, including a winter trek in Yellowstone Park and travels in northern Mexico.  These produced little more than grist for his publicity mill.  Many of Schwatka’s “discoveries” were controversial, as he largely followed in the steps of others and rarely gave credit to them. His later reputation would also suffer from his tendency to exaggerate and over-dramatize his accomplishments.

Throughout the book, Wamsley sympathetically explores Schwatka’s complex personality – hardy and adventurous, an organized and inspiring natural leader, friendly and amusing, yet self-promoting and prone to exaggeration. He retained his admiration of indigenous cultures and people but occasionally agreed to their sensational exploitation when it served to enhance his public appearances. From his time as a hard-drinking cavalryman Schwatka also, except when actively involved in strenuous activity, was prone to alcohol and substance abuse. His coverage of the events leading up to Schwatka’s untimely early death by overdose is the most complete treatment I have read.

One regrets the lack of Schwatka’s private correspondence, which would have helped illuminate this complex man's inner life. Reliance on contemporary writings about him, pro and con, is rarely given by those who knew him personally and is usually coloured by the writer’s bias. Schwatka’s prodigious published output is journalistic, sometimes offering insight into his humour and self-deprecating nature but mainly leaving his personality opaque (not a bad attribute in a journalist.) It must be remembered that, unlike personal letters, his writings were intended for publication and were penned to serve his professional interests. 

The most trustworthy assessments come from those who shared trials in challenging situations. After his death, a fellow cavalry officer recalled, “The officers and men in the regiments in which he served loved him, and none more so than the lowliest private, for he was always kind and considerate.” Klutschak credited the success of Schwatka’s Arctic expedition to his “wide knowledge, good judgment [sic], energy and correct handling of his men.”  The Sioux, learning of the death of their adopted brother, held ceremonies of remembrance.

The book features adequately-reproduced illustrations, and maps of Schwatka’s travels, although these are smaller than desired and often challenging to follow. The endnotes are well done, offering a means to check on provenance and occasionally offering extended context or information that would have disrupted the flow of the main text. A complete bibliography and index both provide value.

Like his work on Hayes, this book becomes the standard biography for another often-neglected American explorer. It is a welcome addition to the Arctic and Alaskan exploration literature. It should also interest those interested in late nineteenth-century frontier life, Manifest Destiny, or simply in tales of fascinating characters. It is highly recommended. 

Tuesday, April 11, 2023

On Inuit Cinema | Inuit TakugatsaliuKatiget

On Inuit Cinema | Inuit TakugatsaliuKatiget

by Mark David Turner

St. John's Newfoundland: Memorial University Press, 2022


Reviewed by Russell A. Potter

This remarkable book about Inuit cinema certainly catches the eye with its cover art by Jessica Winters, which depicts a camera operator, a director, and a sound technician with a boom mic standing in the snow (it takes a moment to sort this out). It also catches the ear with a relatively new word: TakugatsaliuKatiget, which indicates "cinema" but can be literally translated as "those who are working together on making that which will be able to be seen." It's a fair definition of what cinema -- and this book -- encompasses.

The format is also surprising at first, as the first two-thirds consists of transcribed interviews with Inuit filmmakers, actors, and organizers -- but indeed, this makes eminent sense, as they are the ones who are actually working together to produce Inuit cinema. Turner is also seeking -- rightly, I believe -- to avoid defining a still-emerging area of  cultural activity in any way that would seek to overwrite the Inuit's own sense of what it means and where it's going. This is not, therefore, a comprehensive account of the field of Inuit cinema (though the filmography and other materials at the end -- of which more anon -- approach this possibility), but a snapshot of a moment in the development of something that is still in the process of arriving into being.

The interviewees include a number of key figures in the recent emergence of Inuit cinema: a group associated with Arnait Video Productions (including Lucy Tulugarjuk, known for her performance as Puja in Zacharias Kunuk's Atanarjuat); media producer Stephen Agluvak Puskas (who adds a "checklist for making film in and with Inuit communities"); filmmaker Isabella Rose Weetaluktuk; Inuk Silis Høegh; and members of Nain's OkâlaKatiget Society. The discussions range widely, from the personal experiences of each interviewee to how they got involved in film, to what they see as the current direction for Inuit films to come. At times, they offer some insights into the recent history of such films, but there's also a fair amount of general chatter, not all of which really seems to advance the book's purposes. For me, the most interesting part was learning about the emergence of filmmaking in the Nunatsiavut region, with which I hadn't been very familiar.

Esther Eneutseak with her daughter Nancy Columbia
But the most valuable parts of this volume, to my mind, are the two last ones: a checklist of Key Moments in Inuit Cinema, and a filmography of more than 500 film and television productions both about and by Inuit. It's well-researched, comprehensive, and includes numerous early films that will be unfamiliar to many readers, along with frame stills. In particular, I was glad to see that Turner drew from the research that Kenn Harper and I have done on the silent films in which Esther Eneutseak and her daughter Nancy Columbia appeared; these include the (since lost) 1911 film The Way of the Eskimo, for which Nancy received the credit for writing the scenario (the silent film equivalent of a screenplay). Ninety years before Atanarjuat, it featured a nearly all-Inuit cast as well, with the frozen shores of Lake Michigan standing in for Labrador. 

There are always a few niggles in any such listing -- those films in which Nancy Columbia played Seminole Indians and other non-Native roles aren't mentioned -- and the inclusion of novelty films, such as 1918's Das Eskimobaby, is a bit odd (though Turner is quite right to point out that it marked the first portrayal of an Inuk by a non-Inuit actor). Nevertheless, it's the first thorough filmography of its kind, and forms an intrinsic testament to two phenomena: first, the seemingly endless fascination of early and classic-era Hollywood with "Eskimo" subjects, and second, to the slow, steady, and growing emergence of film in which Inuit have taken control of their own representation. It's something both to recognize and celebrate, and it's to be hoped that this trend will continue and grow. And there's a good sign: we've now finally arrived in the era when Inuit are making films that aren't necessarily solely about Inuit and can hold their own commercially, films like Nyla Innuksuk's Slash/Back,  which manages to give a sharp portrait of teenage life in Pangnirtung, while at the same time being a fast-paced thriller filled with flesh-eating alien worms that wear human skins as a disguise.

But I digress. Turner's book is a landmark in this field, and should be a part of any collection or library focused on Inuit culture -- as well as any with a focus on film and film history.

Sunday, January 29, 2023

Empire of Ice and Stone

Empire of Ice and Stone

by Buddy Levy

New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2022

412 pp: $29.99

Reviewed by Lawrence Millman

As a polar drama, the 1913 Karluk story doesn’t have the celebrity status of the Shackleton Endurance saga, but it’s a no less remarkable tale.  The two major players were Captain Bob Bartlett and explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson.  The latter purchased the Karluk, an ill-equipped brigantine, in order to explore the Beaufort Sea, and when the ship got stuck in the ice off northern Alaska, he headed to the mainland to hunt caribou, although there weren’t caribou in that part of Alaska.  The Karluk soon sank, with Bartlett playing Chopin’s “Funeral March” on a gramophone to accompany its demise.  After the crew and scientists ended up on Siberia’s Wrangel Island, Bartlett dogsledded to the mainland, then dog-sledded 700 miles to Komsomolskaya Bay, and then took a boat to Alaska.  Time passed.  One day a ship appeared off the shore of Wrangel Island.  The Karluk’s starving, emaciated, and bedraggled survivors were saved.

In Empire of Ice & Stone, author Buddy Levy takes on the Karluk story, and in order to learn about the expedition, he consulted journals, notebooks, logbooks, and various archives.  But rather than "just the facts, ma’am," he invents dialogue and his characters’ inmost thoughts.  He also keeps descriptions at a minimum, especially historical and geographical descriptions. Wrangel Island seems always to be “forbidding” and “craggy” or some variation thereof.  Levy writes that Nome, Alaska, was founded by the Norwegian Jafet Lindeberg, but not that Nome is a toponym named for several locales in Norway.  In the end, the book is like an adventure novel in which the reader eagerly turns the pages to find out who will freeze to death or starve to death next. 

And, as it happens, Buddy Levy didn’t visit any of the places in the book.  Thus he seldom sees the forest for the trees or, I should say, the dwarf shrubs.  In fact, he doesn’t see the dwarf shrubs, either.  For there’s no mention of the fact that Wrangel has a large number of endemic plants, some of which must have been good for foraging, as the island was probably the last refuge in the world for woolly mammoths (he doesn’t mention this, either).  One of the plants has a flower which brought hope to the Karluk’s despairing survivors.  Levy makes no attempt to identify the flower, only to say that it’s purple (it was probably purple saxifrage).  The survivors eat several polar bears, but there’s no reference to the fact that Wrangel has the largest density of denning polar bears of anywhere in the world.  Indeed, several of those survivors died not from eating tainted pemmican, as Levy suggests, but probably from trichinosis as a result of having eaten undercooked polar bear meat.  Yes, I know: the book is about an Arctic expedition, not the natural world.   But I dare say you can’t write about an expedition like this one without describing the environment where it takes place.  

What I’ve referred to in the previous paragraph is a common malady nowadays.  Authors who write books about the Arctic seem disinclined to go there.  Instead, they surf the web, read other books and texts, visit an archive or two, and voila! out comes their book.  Small wonder that words like “desolate,” “craggy,” “barren,” or “forbidding” are repeatedly used to describe Arctic habitats.  Here I should mention that the previous book about the Karluk expedition, Jennifer Niven’s The Ice Master, suffers from the same malady as Levy’s book.  Ms. Niven didn't' visit the Arctic herself until after her book was published, and this is obvious throughout her narrative.  Certain readers might argue that these books aren’t really about the Arctic, but about human survival.  To repeat myself, you can’t write about human survival without depicting the habitat where those humans are trying to survive.

Even so, Empire of Ice & Stone is a page turner.  Bartlett’s heroism is duly noted, as is Stefansson’s self-absorbed behavior.  But if you want to read a really good book about the Karluk expedition, you should procure a copy of William Laird McKinley’s The Last Voyage of the Karluk.  McKinley, otherwise known as “Wee Willie” (he was 5’4” tall), was one of the ship’s survivors as well as one of its scientists.  What he says about Captain Bartlett, Vilhjalmur Stefansson, and his own vicissitudes on Wrangel Island rings powerfully with the truth.

Monday, January 2, 2023

The Last Speaker of Bear

The Last Speaker of Bear

by Lawrence Millman

San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 2022

214 pp., $18.95

Reviewed by Russell A. Potter

I first encountered Larry Millman -- by way of a printed page -- more than forty years ago on the shelves of a bookstore in my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. The book was Our Like Will Not Be There Again: Notes from the West of Ireland; at the time, I was big on anything Irish, so I picked up the book almost without a thought. Reading it on my way home on the creaky cars of the Shaker Rapid, I was soon riveted: the narrative within was neither the "Romantic Ireland" that seems to live eternally (even though Yeats proclaimed it dead in 1913), but neither was it a mere travelogue of picturesque scenery and chatty publicans. It was more of a collection of characters, really, the plain (and not so plain) people of Ireland that he'd had chanced to meet as he tramped about. And what characters! -- among them a wandering minstrel who proclaims "After me, it'll be dead -- poetry, I mean." All of these encounters are framed by Millman's lively eye and ear, and and the end of the book I remember simply wishing there were more.

Since then, Millman has gone on to write a good long shelf-full of books, most of them connected with his wanderings in the North. In these, he has gathered yet more tales and their tellers, incorporating them into the larger fabric of his prose with the skill of a master weaver. He has long practiced his own wry art of juxtaposition, finding irony -- far more than three types of it -- in places where rugged individualists gather just outside the edges of our 'civilized' existence. In The Last Speaker of Bear, though, Millman adopts a slightly different tactic: here, the anecdotes are scattered, each on its own, without the connective tissue of a larger narrative. The result can be uneven in places; like gemstones pulled from their settings, not all of these tales have quite the same sparkle. Nevertheless, all are engaging, and quite a few shine brightly on their own, the title story among them.

This last speaker, we find, resides in Utshimassits, a since-abandoned Innu village about 200 miles north of Goose Bay in Labrador. The story goes that this elder was the lone remaining practitioner of polite conversation with bears, conducted just before a hunter kills one. It goes like this, as the hunter begins:

"My family is very hungry, Grandfather, so would it be okay if I kill you?"

"I don't mind if you kill me, but you'll have to smoke a pipe with me after you've done so."

This of course begs the question of how exactly one smokes a pipe with a dead bear, but apparently in the olden days the Innu even made special pipes just for this occasion. Unfortunately, as so often happens, poor weather unsuitable for small planes has delayed Millman's flight; the last speaker of bear has died the night before he arrives. His friend and informant, who'd told him of this man, explains that now, "we just kill bears," as he feels the few words he himself knows of the bear language are so meagre and poor that they would just be an insult to them.

It's a quintessential Larry story, as it's one that only could be told to him, and only he could tell -- his manner is impeccable, that of a raconteur's raconteur. But it's also, as are many of these tales, both funny and elegiac; it's not only speakers of bear, but ice, walrus, patrmigan, and seals that are growing scarcer, as global warming rejiggers the Northern ecosystem. At the same time, airplanes, cruise ships, and tourists -- that bane of Millman's world -- are becoming steadily more numerous.

But of course, when he wants, he can pass among them. One of my favorite stories in the book concerns an expedition cruise up the coast of Labrador on which Millman is serving as a shipboard lecturer. Hour after hour, day after day, the ice prevents the ship from anchoring for any landings, and the captain ends up continually shifting to a further goal, none of which are reached (this will be a scenario familiar to nearly anyone who's taken such a cruise). At last, even the point of disembarkation in Iqaluit becomes inaccessible, and the captain has to discharge his passengers at a distant landing, from which buses will take them back over the trackless tundra. Back in Iqaluit, Millman is approached by an old friend, who asks "So, the trip didn't go according to plan?" "Not at all," Larry replies, but with great enthusiasm. Because, for him, the travails, the detours, and the deferred plans are what it's all about. Like Chaucer's Wife of Bath, he knows a great deal about "wandering by the way," and we are all the richer for sharing in his journeys.