Minds of Winter is an ambitious novel that chronicles the effects of the disappearance of the notorious Franklin Expedition above the Arctic circle. It begins from the expedition’s inception in Van Diemen’s Land in 1841 and continues to affect polar explorers right through to present day Inuvik, North West Territories.
It’s quite a feat to cover nearly 200 years of history in a coherent and entertaining way, which is why author Ed O’Loughlin chose to sprinkle the narrative surrounding Franklin’s disappearance in between chapters regarding the protagonists, Nelson Nilsson and Fay Morgan, who are both in search of something for themselves.
Nelson, living in his brother’s empty apartment, wearing his brother’s coat, and driving his brother’s car, is looking for Bert Nilsson, who popped out of existence some time before Nelson came to be living his brother’s life. Fay has come to the North West Territories looking to solve the mystery of her grandfather’s carriage clock, an item that makes several appearances throughout the history of those involved with finding Franklin. A chance encounter, the missing of a turn-off, brings them together.
“The stars burned so fiercely that it seemed to Oates if he held his breath he would hear them.”
—Ed O’Loughlin, Minds of Winter
Packed with genuinely fascinating pieces of historical Canadian trivia, Minds of Winter elaborates on the lives of real famous people including Francis Crozier, Roald Amundsen, Joseph René Bellot, John Meares, Ipiirviq (Ebierbing or “Eskimo Joe”), and more. The book is a huge work of imagination and grit. Many chapters are built up from scratch, with O’Loughlin managing to bring every character to life.
The rub with making every character come to life is that they are gone in the very next chapter. If they are present, it’s in a secondary way that isn’t significant to the narrative we are following now. This is the reason for Nelson and Fay’s presence in the book: to give us someone to care about and a reason to keep reading.
The problem is Nelson and Fay are so rarely seen and are not as carefully crafted characters as the people living lives in a past that points directly toward the two of them. Their chapters are few and far between, without much happening at all except, it seems, driving through Arctic snow (which on its own could be as terrifying and exhilarating as any polar exploration).
“No matter how tired you are, you don’t fall asleep in the snow.”
—Ed O’Loughlin, Minds of Winter
In fact, the only character that garners genuine empathy is that of Meares, whose adventures are actually followed for a significant amount of time. Through Meares, we know that something (though we’re not quite sure what) is at stake, and we can feel it. He’s a curious and intriguing individual who received seemingly nonsensical telegraphs that deepen his mystery. He’s sort of like if James Bond and Indiana Jones were one person from the nineteenth century who has a small British Columbian island named in his honour.
As an introduction to the world of polar explorers, Minds of Winter is an overwhelming deluge of information. One gets the sense that a reader familiar with the facts and all the old myths would have a great time sifting through the mystery as presented by O’Loughlin. As a work of fiction, the book efficiently covers a huge swath of time in elegant prose, but suffers from a pair of utterly forgettable protagonists. Though, having read to the end, maybe that was the point.