Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Ice Ghosts: 200 Years Searching for the Lost Franklin Expedition

In 1847 Sir John Franklin left England and his adoring wife Lady Jane to seek the fabled Northwest Passage. He was 59 years old and it was his fourth journey to the Arctic. He had survived starvation on his second journey. This expedition was prepared with three years of food, included new-fangled canned foods. He had powerful, heated ships. The explorer Ross promised to rescue Franklin if he did not come home.

Nothing went as planned. Extreme ice stranded the ships. Their canned food was tainted. Their maritime boots and clothing were inadequate. Franklin died and his men left the boats encased in ice, journeyed on foot, and died of exposure and starvation.

Lady Jane pressed for a search and rescue mission and spent her fortune in the quest to find her husband. For over a hundred years, enthralled by the mysterious disappearance, men went on the hazardous journey to the Arctic, hoping to solve the mystery of the lost Franklin Expedition.

My interest in polar exploration dates to junior high when I read The Great White South about the lost Scott Expedition. Over the years I've read books including Frances Spufford's I Shall Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination and Knud Rasmussen's biography White Eskimo by Stephen Bown. I loved the historical fiction book based on Franklin Voyage of the Narwhal  by Andrea Barrett and Dan Simmons' supernatural take in The Terror.

The first part of Ice Ghosts recounts the history of the expedition and the early rescue attempts, presenting the historical facts. The second part of the book is a wonderful examination of the the modern search for Franklin, including Inuit culture and history and their contribution of new information about Franklin.

Watson vividly describes the experience of the Arctic--the initial thrill followed by the freezing that can take mere minutes. The months of darkness and isolation. This environment demands cooperation to survive. I loved learning about the Inuit culture and people and their contribution to the knowledge of Franklin through their oral histories.

Louie Kamookak is the great-grandson of an Inuk storyteller and respected shaman who assisted the the Inuit anthropologist Knud Rasmussen. Rasmussen recorded the Inuit way of life as it was before being disrupted by Europeans, including enforced separation of children into mission schools where they faced abuse, resulting in 4,100 deaths.

Kamookak also had a grandfather who was an Irish trader, Gibson, who had found a marker left by an 1859 search party, and who found skeletons in another location. Kamookak's grandmother had told him that as a girl she had seen Franklin artifacts; she had taken a blunt metal knife and refashioned it into an ice chisel.

A history of tragedy and bad luck shared by Franklin searchers did not prevent Kamookak from an obsession to learn more.  He recorded oral histories from his elders to understand what had happened to the expedition. The native people knew where Franklin's men had died and where the ships settled.

The search for the Terror, Erebus, and Franklin's grave has become an international battleground. Artifacts left in situ can be disturbed by a storm and lost. But if they are collected they will soon decay. As climate change melts the ice it turns the land into swamps. Oil companies hope to drill in the Arctic, which would endanger the environment; they have funded researchers whose knowledge and new equipment are helpful to their goal.

The ships have now been found and some artifacts collected. But the grave of Franklin is yet to be discovered. The 'epic hunt' remains, as does our fascination. Watson's book is an important contribution and is sure to help another generation fall under the thrall of the tragic story of the Franklin Expedition.

I received a free ebook from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

See recovered artifacts at
See a video of the Terror at
Hear Stan Rogers singing Northwest Passage at

Ice Ghosts: The Epic Hunt for the Lost Franklin Expedition
Paul Watson
W. W. W. Norton & Company
$27.95 hard cover
Publication Date: March 21, 2017
ISBN: 9780393249385

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