Frozen noments: two books untangle fact and fiction at memorable times in Arctic history.
Dorothy Harley Eber
University of Toronto Press
168 pages, hardcover
Race to the Polar Sea: The Heroic Adventures of Elisha Kent Kane
381 pages, hardcover
"THEIR SKINS WERE BLACK AND THE MEAT above their teeth was gone; their eyes were gaunt. Were they tuurngait--spirits--or what?" So a present-day resident of Iqaluit recounts age-old impressions of the last members of the Franklin expedition--a recollection passed for generations through her family. "It was a bedtime story," she says of this snippet of lore.
To non-Inuit, it may seem remarkable that such transient impressions should be preserved so long in legend, but the accuracy of this oral history has often been confirmed. American explorer Charles Francis Hall, for example, waylaid on Baffin Island in 1860 while seeking evidence of the Franklin tragedy, realized that the legends he was hearing from his hosts provided key information, totally absent from written records, about encounters their ancestors had with Martin Frobisher almost three centuries earlier.
Are the stories of today's Inuit as useful a guide? In Encounters on the Passage: Inuit Meet the Explorers, Dorothy Harley Eber presents intriguing evidence gleaned from interviews she conducted from 1994 to 2008 to argue that oral knowledge can still offer flesh insights into the interaction between the Inuit and Arctic explorers. It is the tales of the members of Franklin's expedition that prove most riveting. As Eber observes, "after more than 150 years, these spectral marchers still have the power to raise shivers."
How much do such stories actually add to the existing record? Using material from her interviews, Eber contends that there are hints, overlooked in mainstream theories, that one of Franklin's ships was still in use after April 22, 1848--the abandonment date stated in the expedition's sole surviving record. In Eber's potential alternate story, some of Franklin's men returned to their deserted ship after a looting by Inuit intruders, managed to sail it briefly northward, and thereafter lost contact with the main Franklin party. Given her controversial foregrounding of modern-day oral sources in reinterpreting this and several other famous exploration episodes, not all will be convinced by Eber's arguments. But she has undoubtedly done Arctic historians a service by collecting these explorer legends just as the Inuit oral tradition is being swamped by modern-day culture.
Race to the Polar Sea: The Heroic Adventures of Elisha Kent Kane shifts us to more conventional literary territory--the latest instalment in Ken McGoogan's string of exploration biographies, this one again showing his meticulous research, robust prose and keen psychological insight, focused on the American adventurer Elisha Kent Kane. McGoogan sets the stage with an arresting portrait of early 19th-century Philadelphia and details how Kane's father, a judge, achieved wealth and political prominence. Judge Kane's ambitious son trained as a doctor so he could throw himself in adventure's way. After serving on an official American mission to China, he joined a naval squadron suppressing the illegal slave trade on the West African coast. Then, in the Mexican-American War, Kane fell in with a band of renegade mercenaries, only to turn on them after the defeat of some Mexican regulars left the mercenaries threatening to kill the surrendering troops. Kane's success in ending the carnage won the vocal gratitude of his erstwhile enemies and later led to doting attention in Philadelphia's papers.
Stirred by this taste of celebrity, he was drawn to the romance of the lost Franklin expedition and the multinational hunt to discover its fate. After finagling a position as surgeon on a privately financed American search expedition, he witnessed the dramatic moment when three graves and the remains of Franklin's first wintering site were discovered on Beechey Island. In common with some other searchers gathered there in 1850, Kane incorrectly presumed that Franklin must then have headed north, where his party had become trapped in the ice-flee waters that, according to one popular but highly questionable scientific view, existed in the region of the Pole.
Soon Kane was mapping out a bold but quixotic plan. In command of a vessel, he would overwinter on the western coast of Greenland, further north than any explorer had done before. With the arrival of spring, his crew would use dog teams and small boats to reach the presumed open polar sea, and sail back south by the end of the summer.
The journey, launched in 1853, turned into a two-year marathon. Kane's decision to seek out a high north wintering site was audacious but dangerous. As his detractors had warned, the Advance remained ice locked even at the height of summer. In 1854 part of his crew defected in a desperate attempt, using sledge and open boat, to reach Upernavik, the closest port on Greenland's coast, more than 1,125 kilometres away. Kane and a few loyal supporters elected to spend their second winter on the ship. Once the defeated defectors returned, the entire party was forced to pass the long dark months together.
In these fraught conditions, the crew's survival was made possible only through fortuitous contact with a nearby group of Inuit. Once initial suspicions were overcome, the two sides built a highly fruitful alliance that saw them through the winter, aided by the Inuit's admiration for Kane's stoicism, as well as his willingness to adopt traditional Inuit knowledge in overcoming extreme conditions. The next spring he was able to lead his party, including several men incapacitated by illness and amputations, the entire way to Upernavik, succeeding brilliantly where the defectors had failed the year before.
The accolades awaiting Kane on the party's return were rapturous; so too were the reviews of the narrative he later published. He could point to a few successes amid the expedition's setbacks--most notably a foray to the shores of the most northern channel between Greenland and Ellesmere Island, just under 1,000 kilometres from the Pole. Here a scouting party found what they believed to be the fabled open polar sea. Although their assumption of a large body of ice-flee water was later disproven, Kane's men forged what became the favoured route of the polar explorers. More unexpectedly, Kane's own description of the massive Humboldt Glacier on Greenland's northwestern shore would have a major impact on early geological theories of the Ice Age.
After an outpouring of grief at Kane's untimely death in 1857, his reputation began to fade, and the question arises whether Kane fully deserves the resuscitated reputation McGoogan gives him in this book. He was by no means alone among Arctic explorers in using shoddy science about the open polar sea (for which, admittedly, the explorers themselves could not be blamed) and a hefty dose of wishful thinking on Franklin's whereabouts as a pretext for life-and-death battles with brute nature. But he did so at a time when several others--far less favoured by family wealth or personal connections--brought real ingenuity to the task of solving the Franklin enigma. Most notable was John Rae, subject of McGoogan's first biography, Fatal Passage: The Untold Story of John Rae, the Arctic Adventurer Who Discovered the Fate of Franklin--a path-breaking work that gave Rae long overdue credit for a series of insights since proven correct. It is risky for an author of multiple biographies to step back from a close-up view of one of his subjects to make panoramic pronouncements, especially when these judgements involve the protagonist of another of his books: there is the danger that one book's themes will bleed over to the other. Still, McGoogan finessed this challenge when dealing with John Rae's role in Lady Franklin's Revenge: A True Story of Ambition, Obsession and the Remaking of Arctic History, his recent biography of Rae's staunchest critic. In Race to the Polar Sea, the equally ambitious task of setting Kane's achievements next to those of his more pragmatically minded contemporaries would have been well worth the effort.
Mark Lovewell is interim chair of English at Ryerson University. He is co-publisher of the LRC.
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|Title Annotation:||Encounters on the Passage: Inuit Meet the Explorers; Race to the Polar Sea: The Heroic Adventures of Elisha Kent Kane|
|Publication:||Literary Review of Canada|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Apr 1, 2009|
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