The narrative of Sir John Franklin’s expedition to find the seemingly mythical northwest passage through the Arctic in the 19th century will be familiar to fans of books on polar exploration. Coming to it fresh, as I did, will leave you with a lot of facts, names, and dates that don’t add up to much without the helpful maps and timeline found in the front matter of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Paul Watson’s mammoth book Ice Ghosts: The Epic Hunt for the Lost Franklin Expedition.
Parts I and II are set in Franklin’s time. Part I focuses on the shame that drove Franklin to chase his honour through the Arctic, the politics that kept him from doing so for so long, and the events that followed once he was finally allowed to go. This includes a long discussion about how well-prepared the entire expedition crew was, how fortified the ships HMS Erebus and Terror were, how many pounds of chocolate and rum were on board, how reinforced the hulls were, and how baffling it is that two of the most Arctic-ready ships ever to sail could disappear.
Part II details the hunt to find the expedition, including the dogged efforts of Sir John’s wife, Lady Franklin, to find her husband and bring him home. Lady Franklin stands out in these first parts as the most interesting person to follow, petitioning high-ranking officials in both Britain and America, currying favour with the masses, even going as far as consulting a psychic in her desperation to find her husband. Hers is a touching story of the dedication one woman can have for a man long since vanished.
While the circumstances surrounding the disappearance of the ships Erebus and Terror are fascinating, mostly pieced together from remnants found years after the fact, the majority of the first 150 Ice Ghosts is a bore. While well-researched and put together in a way that cleanly delivers a ton of information all at once, it comes across dry.
“At first, there’s no pain, no body distress signals to say the deep freeze is inflicting serious damage. Then suddenly your skin is so cold it feels hot.
Old wounds, forgotten long ago, hurt gain.”
—Paul Watson, Ice Ghosts
So it was with great relief that I finally turned the page on Part III where we finally get introduced to the narrator. He’s been there all along, delivering us all the necessary information we need to understand the weight of the coming events, but now he’s present, even if the “I” is buried far deep in the snow.
The opening chapter of Part III is called “An Inuk Detective” and it is in this chapter that we meet Louie Kamookak, an Inuit man born during a time when the Canadian government set its mind to “civilizing” the northern peoples. Far back in Louie’s bloodline is “a legendary Irish fur trader,” lending Louie his white man’s way of walking. It’s his intersectional identity, aboriginal and qalunaaq, that makes Louie the right man to solve the Franklin mystery.
Now with presence in the north, someone to root for, and stakes increasing by every decade that the ships go unfound, Ice Ghosts becomes suddenly gripping. Complete with Stephen Harper and his war on science as antagonist, the book thrills and pushes you forward through the narrative like a ship stuck in an ice floe, until the discovery, just this past few years, of Franklin’s ships.
With a close and sympathetic eye on the Inuit, and empathetic portraits of the men who were lost, Watson brings his experience treading through some of the most dangerous conflicts in the world to a more peaceful purpose: solving a mystery that has tantalized Franklinists for over a century.