Heavy Sledding

Chauncey Loomis

  • The Arctic Grail: The Quest for the Northwest Passage and the North Pole, 1818-1909 by Pierre Berton
    Viking, 672 pp, £16.95, May 1989, ISBN 0 670 82491 7
  • Overland to Starvation Cove: With the Inuit in Search of Franklin 1878-1880 by Heinrich Klutschak and William Barr
    Toronto, 261 pp, £17.50, February 1988, ISBN 0 8020 5762 4
  • Frozen in Time: The Fate of the Franklin Expedition by Owen Beattie and John Geiger
    Bloomsbury, 180 pp, £12.95, November 1987, ISBN 0 7475 0101 7

In the 19th century, Canada’s Arctic Archipelago proved to be an explorer’s nightmare, a maze of straits, channels, gulfs, inlets, sounds, shoals, peninsulas and islands that confounded even the best navigators. Looking at its jigsaw configurations on a modern map, we can understand why its uncharted straits and channels were often mistaken by the pessimistic for dead-end inlets, its inlets by the optimistic for straits and channels – its islands for peninsulas, its peninsulas for islands. Exacerbating the problem was ice, especially floe and pack ice. Protean and shifting, it also could be fatally solid, and it made the geography of the Arctic unstable: a passage clear one week could be clogged the next, and even accurate charts could be made useless by the ice. The Archipelago was a daunting place to find your way around in.

A writer setting out to tell the story of 19th-century Arctic exploration faces a maze almost as shifting and as daunting as the Archipelago itself. Especially during the search for the Franklin Expedition at mid-century, the story is complex. In the decade between 1848, when the search for Franklin began, and 1859, when M’Clintock discovered some grisly remains on King William Island, almost thirty naval and overland expeditions joined the search. A writer has to juggle the names of explorers, famous in their day, but now known only to Arctic buffs, such as John and James Clark Ross, Rae, Pullen, Collinson, M’Clure, Austin, Ommanney, Richardson, Penny, DeHaven, Kane, Forsyth, Bellot, Kennedy, Belcher, Inglefield, M’Clintock – and names of ships, such as Plover, Herald, Enterprise, Investigator, Resolute, Intrepid, Assistance, Pioneer, Lady Franklin, Sophia, Felix, Advance, Rescue, Prince Albert, Isabel, Phoenix, Talbot, Fox. Then there are innumerable place-names, often the names of powerful personages scattered around the Arctic wastes like confetti and made confusing by repetition: Viscount Melville Sound, Melville Island, Melville Peninsula, Victoria Island, Victoria Strait, Prince of Wales Strait, Prince Regent Inlet, Prince Albert Sound (penetrating, it might be noted, deep into Victoria Island), Barrow Strait, Cornwallis Island, Bathurst Island, Boothia Peninsula (Felix Booth, the distiller and patron of Arctic exploration – there also is a Gulf of Boothia and a Cape Felix). Space and time become logistical problems: the writer has to move this explorer here, and that explorer there, in such and such ships, at such and such times, and then explain why they did or did not encounter each other. The danger of narrative confusion is great, and even greater is the danger of narrative monotony.

The latest writer to tell the story is Pierre Berton in The Arctic Grail. Berton accepts the challenge with a boldness worthy of a Robert M’Clure or a James Clark Ross. Not only does he tell the story of the Franklin Expedition and the search for it, he tells the story of all Arctic exploration in the 19th century in three overlapping stages: the search for the Northwest Passage, the search for Franklin, and the attempt to reach the North Pole. The story has the scope, the heroism, the grandeur of a saga, and it also has the absurdity that is latent in any saga looked at with a cool eye. Berton sees both sides of it – and that is one of the many strengths of his book. Assisted by the plenitude of mini-maps scattered throughout the text (an excellent piece of book design), he tells the story clearly, informing the reader of who was where when, but avoiding the tedium and confusion that often accompanies such exposition. He uses much unpublished manuscript material, especially private journals and letters, and also much 19th-century periodical literature, handling both with intelligence and imagination. He puts the exploration into historical context by commenting on the motives that impelled it, and by demonstrating public and private responses to it. He has a unifying thesis: throughout the book his focus is on the terrible cost paid for cultural arrogance and inflexibility (especially the arrogance and inflexibility of naval establishments) in the face of such an austere and fickle environment as the Arctic. The thesis is not original, but it is sound and inevitable when the story is viewed with the imaginative common sense that he demonstrates in the book.

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