Saturday, May 18, 2024

The Ministry of Time

The Ministry of Time

by Kaliane Bradley

Simon & Schuster, $28.99 / £16.99

Reviewed by Russell A. Potter

A richly-detailed historical past and a wholly hypothetical future don't often meet in the same story. Of course, there are those episodes of various Star Trek franchises where the pricipals go back into the "past," being careful to avoid trampling the butterflies of time-travel infamy, but eventually of course the holodeck is invented and saves them the trouble. Novels, our oldest technology of immersive reality, fulfill, in a sense, the same purpose, making our hearts beat faster at imaginary perils -- and pleasures.

Kaliane Bradley's The Ministry of Time is one such, and simply as an immersive, delightful "escape" from our troubled timeline, it shines. Bradley's adroit and fresh way of putting things seems capable of making almost anything -- even London weather -- newly vivid, as when she describes the Christmas season making the city look as though it were "painted by a lesser impressionist." But beyond the glittering language, beyond the slow-burning romance, beyond the tightly-plotted espionage-filled main plot, Bradley's novel is anything but an escape -- on the contrary, it holds our darkness up to ourselves like a spattered mirror, and insists that we not look away.

How to explain the last two centuries -- how to account for the horrors, and our collective ability to repress and forget them, even to "double-down" (as the phrase goes these days) on our worser selves -- to a person who arrives to them as a tabula rasa? Well, not really entirely rasa, as Graham Gore did lead a life, ensconced by the ideological reassurances of his age, but complete with war, slavery, and mortal peril. It's just that he's skipped ahead a few hundred pages, and yet arrives in a world where his "bridge" -- the novel's unnamed narrator -- has the dreadful responsibility of deciding what to tell him, and when.

In the midst of reading about this conundrum, I found myself the somewhat odd position of knowing almost too much about the "real" Graham Gore and his role in the pereptually "ill-fated" Franklin expedition. Not only that, but having read every known piece of fiction inspired by its demise (thirty-two at last count), I initially readied myself for some new take on the tale. Which there was, of course, but that was not the point, dear reader, not the point at all. If considered as a "Franklin fiction," The Ministry of Time moves further from its source than any of them, further into the essential problems of human existence -- and by doing so, becomes the one book that fully captures the expedition's spirit.

And it does so with a narrative capable of the lightest of touches, the gentlest of humors, happily free from the lugubrious self-seriousness which possesses most other Franklin fictions. For, as Terry Pratchett -- in a quote that Bradley is fond of, observed:

The problem is that we think the opposite of funny is serious. It is not. In fact, as GK Chesterton pointed out, the opposite of funny is not funny, and the opposite of serious is not serious … humor has its uses. Laughter can get through the keyhole while seriousness is still hammering on the door. 

I can say with assurance that the Graham Gore we meet with in this book's pages is a fully realized individual, so alive, indeed, that it seems his breath might fog the glass. And his perplexity at the twenty-first century and its accoutrements is so genuinely described that it almost makes us a little embarrassed for ourselves. As the story progresses, the reader, too, is liable to a sort of disassociation, sometimes disconcerting but at othe moments quite delightful. I can see why many readers, on completing the book, begin it all over again, much as Commander Gore can't let go of Geoffrey Household's Rogue Male, the one volume in his new "present" which engages both the man he was -- and the man he will be.

And he's not even necessarily the most remarkable of the "expats" -- the Ministry's double-edged euphemism for those they've plucked from time -- my personal favorite was Margaret Kemble, picked up on the cusp of the Great Plague (and the Great Fire) of London, who dismisses Facebook as "soft oats and whey" but takes to online dating like a stroke of lightning. They, and the narrator, are caught up in two webs -- that of the Ministry and its politics, and that of the vagaries of modern life -- even before a third, the time-traveling espionage one -- gets a hold of them. I loved the novel's "middle parts," the calm before that storm, but its denouement is adroitly plotted, and despite all manner of role-switching revelations, there's a space at the end for hope.

And that's where the underlying seriousness of the story finds its perfect context. In Bradley's words:

 "Life is a series of slamming doors. We make irrevocable decisions every day. A twelve-second delay, a slip of the tongue, and suddenly your life is on a new road."

Which is as true for us today as it was for Graham Gore in 1847. We catch only glimpses of the lost Expedition, and that's as it should be -- because, for him, it happened in "real" time, and even traveling across time doesn't really change that.

Thursday, January 18, 2024

An Inuk Hero

An Inuk Hero in Rupert’s Land 1800-1834

by Renee Fossett

Regina: University of Regina Press, 2023

$36.95 CA Paperback

$89.00 CA Hardback


Reviewed by Lawrence Millman


 Augustine Tataneuck is hardly a familiar name even to Arctic experts.  He was an Inuk, specifically a Kivallirmiuq, who began his Hudson Bay Company apprenticeship in August (hence his first name) of 1812 and continued to work for the Company until his death in 1834.  Among other things, he did household chores, planted cabbages, served as an interpreter, and helped Qallunaat live in various austere habitats.  He also served as an interpreter-guide for Sir John Franklin’s two overland expeditions, winning the admiration not only of Franklin, but also of doctor-naturalist Sir John Richardson, a man whose Arctic expertise considerably surpassed Franklin’s.

In an effort to excavate details about Augustine Tataneuck’s little-known life, author Renee Fossett delved into the archives of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and in most cases she came up empty-handed or found only a drive-by mention of his name.  I can imagine Ms. Fossett saying, “This might result in a paper, but not in a book, so I’ll give my research a broader context.”  Thus a goodly part of The Life and Times of Augustine Tataneuck doesn’t mention Augustine at all, but discusses the HBC trading post at Churchill or the Franklin expeditions.  Indeed, almost 1/3 of the book deals with the Franklin expeditions, and Augustine appears only when his skills as a translator or an Arctic survival expert are required.  By the way, the subtitle is a little misleading: along with the overland Franklin expeditions, several of the book’s primary locales are either east or west of Rupert’s Land, which consisted only of the Hudson Bay drainage basin.     

Concerning that subtitle, Augustine seems rather too complicated an individual to be called simply a hero.  Yes, he was an excellent interpreter-guide, but he also delighted in “spiritous [sic] liquors,” wrote HBC trader Walter Harding.  Another trader wrote that he “was very happy to be issued a blue serge jacket and other items resembling what seaman with the Royal Navy wear.”  Yet another said he was too “arrogant” to do certain kinds of work (perhaps emptying slop buckets?).  Might he have been a Qallunaat wannabe?  

With respect or perhaps disrespect to the Qallunaat, Augustine provided his fellow Inuit with all sorts of items such as mirrors, rings, bells, whistles, and medals — I dare say his generosity in this regard might have been a detriment to their traditional culture.  Ms. Fossett writes “Nothing…sets him [Augustine] apart from other indigenous people at the beginning of the 19th century."

Many recent books have been written about the Arctic by individuals who never went there, so it’s a pleasure to come across a book whose author spent a considerable amount of time in the Arctic.  In addition to her field research, Ms. Fossett spent ten years as a community teacher in various Inuit villages.  In fact, she occasionally steps out of her narrative and purveys lore that she probably acquired from the Inuit themselves.  An example: she mentions the designs a seamstress was obliged to put into her clothing.  Any mistake on that seamstress’s part “could be misinterpreted by a person other-than-human [powerful spirit] and bring disaster on a hunter and his community.”  Sometimes I wish she had stepped out of the narrative in a different way and compared the past with the present…indicating, for example, that Churchill has now become the tourist mecca known as the Polar Bear Capital of the World.

For those readers who are looking for a book fraught with high drama, I would not recommend The Life and Times of Augustine Tataneuck.   But for readers who want a highly detailed, more or less scholarly book that focuses on the history of the Canadian North, I would recommend it highly.

Thursday, January 11, 2024

Passage: A Novel

Passage: A Novel

by Angus Wardlaw

Daredevil Books, 2013, $31.95

Reviewed by Russell A. Potter

Many times in these columns we've reviewed fictional works based in whole or part on Sir John Franklin's Arctic expedition of 1845. It's a subject that has fascinated novelists almost ever since Franklin first vanished; among the luminaries drawn to the story one can count Jules Verne, Mordecai Richler, Sten Nadolny, Margaret Atwood, Richard Flanagan, and of course Dan Simmons. Among the works to spring from this story are poems, plays (including one by Wilkie Collins), an Australian musical and a German opera, not to mention numerous novels -- more than two dozen by my count.

Novelistic treatments of Franklin tend to fall into two camps: one within which some deep symbolic stirrings of his story branch and leaf out into strange new worlds of possibility, some of them traveling far in time and space and style from the expedition itself; among these are the intertwined pseudohistories of William T. Vollman and Ed O'Loughlin, or the pensive meditations of Dominique Fortier or Lindsay Simpson. The others tend to some more realistic (though speculative) extension of what we know, an imagining of what came before and after the expedition's fateful final note; among these one can count John Wilson, Robert Edric, or Nancy Cato.

Wardlaw's novel falls mostly into this second category; interweaving known historical documents, characters, and incidents with fictionalized sequences which bridge wider and wider gulfs of unknowing. As a (collateral) descendant of Francis Crozier, Wardlaw brings a certain special gravitas to the undertaking, and it's also clear that he has spent many years carefully researching many aspects of the story (in a number of which, in the spirit of full disclosure, he and I corresponded over a period of years). There is also, however, a kind of dark, fanciful aspect to the story, in which characters we thought we knew twist and morph under pressure, bending and eventually breaking as the narrative progresses to its inexorable end.

There is a challenge in all historical fiction, though, and that is to capture something of the spirit and language of the era, One can't of course imitate nineteenth-century speech directly; such an effort would produce a very wooden and imitative text, but a fully modern tone would jar as well. One needs, in the words of novelist David Mitchell, to come up with something in-between the old and the new that evokes the older tone to readers of today, a tone he calls "bygonese."

Wardlaw's novel, in my personal view, doesn't quite manage this feat. The insertion of historical documents at many junctures, mostly quotes from Franklin's sailing instructions from the Admiralty, certainly helps, and it's clear that Wardlaw has done extensive research into the history of nautical terminology and jargon, but the speech of his characters sounds too modern to my ear. It becomes more so as circumstances become more dire, with the men swearing and cursing at one another in language that (as my grandmother might say) would "make a sailor blush." Wardlaw also adds odd peculiarities to some characters to make them stand out, including giving Ice Master James Reid a stutter, which seems especially wrong.

The narrative parts are much stonger, however, and the author's descriptive passages are quite evocative, with some brilliant turns of phrase scattered throughout. Having been through the Northwest Passage myself several times, I can affirm that the physical descriptions of land and ice are faithful ones, and paint a rich and detailed picture of the frozen regions that echoes what Franklin and his men would have seen from their ships -- and later, from their sledges.

I also have a slight quarrel with Wardlaw's portraits of the senior officers. Franklin -- who is inaccurately referred to as "the Commodore" throughout -- comes off as an ineffectual duffer who doesn't really have the respect of his subordinates. This is clearly contradicted by his and the men's letters home (though to be fair, Warlaw was writing much of his novel before the collection of letters I co-edited was published). More surprising still is the portrait of his ancestor Francis Crozier, who comes off as a drunken ego-driven man, though (as happens in The Terror television series) he eventually sobers up and becomes and effective leader of the expedition's last efforts at survival). It's also a bit jarring to hear him and J.C. Ross refer to each other as "Frankie" and sometimes even "Jimmy" when the record shows they used "Frank" and "James" for one another. But of course this is a work of fiction, and a novelist enjoys an absolute right to imagine the story in his or her own terms.

I won't give away the book's somewhat unusual hypothetical reconstruction of the expedition's last days -- readers ought to find that out for themselves -- but I will say that it's an original one, and that it certainly makes use of a great variety of historical research that lends it a believeable quality. In the end, Wardlaw's novel is a striking new contribution to the long literary tradition of tales that take up and evoke the deep and resonant tragedy of the Franklin story.