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Wardlaw's novel falls mostly into this second category; interweaving known historical documents, characters, and incidents with fictionalized sequences which bridge wider and wider gulfs of unknowing.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.

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