CM . . . .
Volume VI Number 14 . . . . March 17, 2000
November5 - The sun bid us farewell today and now we face three months of darkness. I hope the lack of light is our most serious worry. We are none in the best of health. All are passing tired and go about their work with hung expressions and a heavy tread. Physical aliments are vague, most have headaches, but nothing Stanley or Goodsir can pin a name to.In 1845, the famous British explorer Sir John Franklin set sail for the Arctic hoping to discover the long-sought North-West Passage. His two sturdy ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, were well provisioned for a minimum of three years in the northern ocean. The expedition sailed with great fanfare from England, and all aboard imagined how they would be feted by an adoring society when they returned. However, once they left Greenland and entered the Arctic Ocean, Franklin and his men were never heard from again even though searches were undertaken. Inuit tales and recent discoveries offer clues to their tragic fate; however, definitive answers to the one hundred and fifty year mystery are lost in the wind, snow, and ice of the barren lands.
John Wilson has created a fictional diary for the real-life captain of the Erebus, James Fitzjames, and tells a tale of high adventure and great misfortune. It is known that Fitzjames kept a diary and that early portions of it were sent to England, but no genuine diary relating to the later events of the Franklin expedition has been found.
The diary unfolds with an early optimism for a successful adventure and great scientific discovery. But it soon seems that the Fates have other plans for the expedition. Problems slowly build upon problems, but none of these are insurmountable in themselves. Seasoned explorers and naval officers expected to be trapped the Arctic ice over one or two long winters; they were prepared for its inevitability and passed the dark season in comfort, secure in the hope that they could sail away in the summer. Wilson proposes, however, that extraordinary bad luck and misguided suppositions led the ships into a perpetually ice-bound cul-de-sac. Their fate was sealed; resources were limited and desperation surely followed.
This novel is not an easy read. Wilson uses an authentic voice for the nineteenth century English gentleman diarist and crew. The sometimes stiff vocabulary and slow cadence will challenge students' interest. However, if they persevere, they will be rewarded with a fascinating and detailed account of life on an Arctic expedition. The men's hidden characters are slowly revealed as they become friends and adversaries throughout the long winters, new hardships are endured and as they courageously face disaster. Wilson also subtly creates a microcosm of England's rigid class-conscious and ethnocentric society within the ships' community of officers and men. The fundamental Victorian world view, which still pervades in western culture, with its belief in scientific progress and humanity's right to challenge and conquer the natural world, are also brought into stark relief as death looms ever more present.
Winnipeger Ian Stewart is a regular contributor on Canadian history to CM and the Winnipeg Free Press book review pages.
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