Sunday, April 18, 2010

Kane arrives in Alaska

Review: ‘Race to Polar Sea’ delivers history, adventure
by David A. James / For the Fairbanks News-Miner

FAIRBANKS - “A scientist studying the effects of extreme stress could hardly do better than to confine nineteen men in a cabin and subject them to intense cold and never-ending darkness while attacking them with scurvy and starvation.”

This sentence summarizes the experience readers are in for when they delve into “Race to the Polar Sea,” Canadian author Ken McGoogan’s account of the journeys of American explorer Elisha Kent Kane. McGoogan, who teaches writing in Toronto, is no stranger to arctic history, and he knows how to tell a good story. In Kane he has an ideal topic.

Elisha Kent Kane was born in Philadelphia in 1820, the son of a politically well-connected judge.

Though suffering from rheumatism and a heart arrhythmia, he was determined to make his mark on the world. He studied medicine and enlisted in the Navy, traversing the globe and racking up adventures from Brazil to Egypt to China. He also volunteered for the Mexican- American War, where he demonstrated both valor and compassion. His book about his exploits made him a household name.

But the far north was where he truly earned his fame. In 1850 he signed up for the first Grinnell Expedition, an American attempt at learning the fate of Sir John Franklin, the British explorer who had left to find the Northwest Passage in 1845 and vanished.

Kane served aboard the Advance, one of two ships sent north. Sailing into northeastern Canada, the crew made a brief stop on Beechey Island where they happened upon the graves of three of Franklin’s men.

This was the first sign anyone had found of the lost expedition. After a winter spent locked in the ice, the Advance sailed south with Kane already planning his return trip.

Back in the U.S., Kane raised funds by not only pitching the need to find Franklin, who many believed was still alive, but also to discover what was then known as the Polar Sea. Most experts at the time believed that the Arctic Ocean was ringed by ice, but that open water teaming with wildlife was contained within. It was hoped that by finding an entrance to this sea, the Northwest Passage could finally be located.

While he was busy laying plans, Kane also fell in love with a young woman named Maggie Fox who was widely known through her work as a spirit rapper, a completely fraudulent means of communicating with the dead. Unable to quench his feelings, and despite his family’s sure disapproval, he promised to marry her upon his return.

In 1853 Kane boarded the Advance again, this time as skipper, and headed north. Rather than return to the graves, he pointed his ship up the narrow channel between Greenland and Baffin Island.

The icy water was difficult to navigate, but by hitching to large icebergs that were drifting northward, the ship kept moving. Laying numerous caches along the way, the crew reached Rensselaer Harbor on the Greenland coast, further north than any vessel had previously ventured, before being iced in.

Kane and his crew explored the region, discovering Humboldt Glacier (the world’s largest) in the process. Two of his men also reached open water to the north, suggesting that the rumored Polar Sea existed. But they would become better known for the ordeal that followed than for their discoveries.

Winter aboard the ship was difficult. The men were cramped into a small space, food and fuel had to be rationed, scurvy was endemic, and trips onto the ice were dangerous. The sun vanished for several months and temperatures frequently plunged to 40-below-zero and more. The crew persevered — though not without dissension and a couple of deaths — and by spring the return of the sun brought plans for the journey home.

What Kane and his men failed to anticipate, however, was that they had reached a location where the ice didn’t always melt. As the summer of 1854 passed, the ship remained bound. Faced with another winter in Rensselaer Harbor, an escape using sledges and whaleboats was attempted.

After failing and retreating to the Advance, the men confronted the grim reality of another long winter.

Eight of them, unwilling to accept this fate, abandoned the rest and headed south.

On board the ship the situation grew ever more dire. Food was in short supply, the ship itself had to cannibalized for firewood, scurvy and frostbite ate away at the men’s bodies, and the cold was even more severe than the previous winter. To top it off, the defectors returned after failing to escape, further diminishing the short supplies.

What kept the men alive was Kane’s ability to establish relations with a band of Inuit who had migrated into the area. By trading goods for food and dogs, he kept most of his men alive, but just barely.

By spring, the only hope for survival lay in a perilous 1,300-mile journey to Upernavik, Greenland over ice and open water, again using sledges and whaleboats. For healthy men this would have been extremely challenging. That Kane’s depleted crew managed it with only one death staggers the imagination.

Kane returned to America a hero, wrote a bestselling account of his journey, and married Maggie Fox.

But his ill health struck him down less than two years later.

Kane has since fallen prey to considerable criticism by historians, and McGoogan has attempted here to restore his good name.

The result is a book that’s a bit too uncritical. Kane had more faults than McGoogan seems willing to acknowledge. But this account is nonetheless quite extraordinary.

McGoogan leaves no doubt that, by any measure, Kane was one of the greatest 19th century Arctic explorers.

David A. James lives in Fairbanks.

Race to the Polar Sea Ken McGoogan Counterpoint, 404 pages 2008, $15.95

Friday, April 9, 2010

Oh Whitman, my Whitman!

Walt Whitman's Secret, by George Fetherling, Random House Canada, 350 pages, $32.

Reviewed by Ken McGoogan

Globe and Mail Update Published on Friday, Apr. 09, 2010

Nothing in the previous work of George Fetherling has prepared us for this. The man has written dozens of books, among them biographies, histories, contemporary novels, collections of essays and poems, and that autobiographical classic Travels by Night: A Memoir of the Sixties. But none of them approaches Walt Whitman's Secret in ambition or achievement.

With this historical novel, the author sets out to change the way we see a major literary figure, the poet whose Leaves of Grass has attracted the attention of generations of scholars and readers. The result is a stunning success. While remaining within the known facts about the life of Walt Whitman (1819-1892), at least as far as a non-specialist can tell, Fetherling has delivered an imaginative triumph by implicating Whitman in the political action of his times. In the end, the poet's vaunted innocence looks more like a pose.

Such enthusiasm demands full disclosure. Like most published writers in Canada, I do know George Fetherling. We met in the 1970s when he was still “Douglas” and we both worked at The Toronto Star. Over the decades, we have had coffee or lunch six or eight times, and I was one of 60 people invited to his 60th-birthday celebration at Massey College.

Discount this assessment if you must. In my view, Fetherling chose a brilliant narrative strategy. Like F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby, he presents a first-person account by an eyewitness, a minor character who, in this case, has a remarkable presence in the historical record. Though we discover his identity only gradually, the narrator is Horace Traubel, the real-life author of Walt Whitman in Camden, a nine-volume biography that focuses on the poet's final years. Traubel, who considered himself Whitman's “spirit child,” visited the poet almost daily from the mid-1880s until his death, and developed his multi-volume portrait from detailed notes of their conversations.

Fetherling creates a subtle tension between Whitman, the keeper of a dark secret, and Traubel, the much younger disciple obsessed with dragging it into the light. That tension keeps us turning pages. Early on, Traubel tells us that “the skeleton in W's closet was not the one outsiders suspected.” Rather, “the supposed revelation W was at such pains to hide from the public while being compelled to reveal it in his work was actually not a secret in the least, but a commonplace truth for limited circulation.” Yes, Walt Whitman was gay. But to the discerning, that was no secret.

Readers who flip through the novel seeking a sentence or a paragraph that reveals Whitman's secret will search in vain. A skilled and sophisticated writer, Fetherling is far beyond such awkward blundering. Whitman's secret concerns U.S. president Abraham Lincoln, and the only rough patch in this otherwise seamless narrative occurs when the author begins weaving it into the fabric.

From the first page on, Traubel addresses “Flora,” who is based on the real-life Flora MacDonald Denison, a Canadian suffragist, radical journalist and admirer of Whitman. This enables Fetherling to introduce a striking Canadian dimension and, more important, to speak intimately of his subject in bringing him to vivid life.

Traubel describes how, for example, when he enters the poet's room, Whitman tells him to throw his hat on the bedpost: “You see, he often hung his trousers in that manner, though his own hat, the soft gray sloucher with the high crown and the sweat stains, lay as usual on the round table by the window, holding down a stack of loose documents. … He had taken off his boots of course but otherwise had fallen asleep fully dressed. The evening was warm and muggy, but he shuffled across the plank floor, struck a match on the side of the stove and tossed it in the firebox.”

As this brief quotation suggests, Fetherling has not only found the perfect point-of-view character, but has given him a credible, entertaining voice. This is especially impressive considering that the narrator is writing, ostensibly, in 1918. When the poet shows him a nude photo of himself, Traubel writes: “I was shocked, for though I had frequently seen him in dishabille, I certainly had never lain eyes on his generative appendage.”

Fetherling also lets Whitman speak for himself, as when the poet comments on a painting by Thomas Eakins of a group of nude boys cavorting on the banks of a river: “They remind us how like a piece of fruit the body is, reaching the perfect state of ripeness that is all too brief. Eakins caught them at that moment, before they had any awareness that the ultimate end of the process is to rot and fall from the branch.”

Walt Whitman's Secret is an adult novel. In pace as in language, it evokes another age. Resolutely unfashionable, utterly convincing, it is a resonant, shimmering work that stakes a claim on posterity.


Ken McGoogan, vice-chairman of the Public Lending Right Commission, has been known to kick off presentations by quoting from Whitman's Song of the Open Road. This autumn, he will publish How the Scots Invented Canada.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Arctic Labyrinths

In the first issue of Canada's History, the magazine formerly known as The Beaver, our hero reviews a pair of books. . . .

Arctic Labyrinth by Gwyn Williams,
and Joseph-Elzéar Bernier by Marjolaine Saint-Pierre

Reviewed by Ken McGoogan

In his 1908 book about navigating the Northwest Passage, Roald Amundsen explicitly credited the Scottish-Orcadian explorer Dr. John Rae with having shown him where to sail. “His work was of incalculable value to the Gjoa expedition,” Amundsen wrote. “He discovered Rae Strait which separates King William Land from the mainland. In all probability through this strait is the only navigable route for the voyage round the north coast of America. This is the only passage which is free from destructive pack ice.”

Amundsen, the first to sail through the passage — he went from the Atlantic to the Pacific — would remain correct in this assessment for four decades. Not until 1944 would Canadian Henry Larsen, assisted by later technology, become the first to sail the passage using a different route.

Yet in Arctic Labyrinth: The Quest for the Northwest Passage, you will look in vain for the above quotation from Amundsen. In this otherwise impressive survey, historian Glyn Williams gives John Rae no credit for discovering the channel that made the Norwegian’s historic voyage possible.

He tells us that George Back of the Royal Navy and Thomas Simpson of the Hudson’s Bay Company suspected the existence of Rae Strait. But instead of crediting John Rae himself at the appropriate juncture, he quotes Amundsen in praise of Royal Navy Captain Richard Collinson and moves on.

History is always subject to interpretation, and here we see that even distinguished scholars have biases. Williams, an emeritus professor based in London, has written several notable books over the decades. These include both academic studies and popular works on Captain James Cook and Arctic exploration in the eighteenth century.

In Arctic Labyrinth, Williams retells an epic saga marked by shipwreck, starvation, scurvy, frostbite, amputations, and Orcadi an expedition,” probability cannibalism. He writes in a tradition that includes In Quest of the Northwest Passage by Leslie H. Neatby, Arctic Grail by Pierre Berton, and The Search for the North West Passage by Ann Savours.

His book is more detailed than Neatby’s and less lively than Berton’s. He essentially follows Savours from the nineteenth century onwards, and con¬tributes most in relation to the earlier periods — some of which he treated in Voyages of Delusion: The Quest for the Northwest Passage.

The author’s decades-long immer¬sion in exploration history enables him to turn up the occasional nugget. With regard to the five men who disappeared from Martin Frobisher’s 1576 expedition, for example, he reminds us that the later reports of Charles Francis Hall, taken from the Inuit, suggest that those sailors were not murdered after all, as is fre¬quently alleged, but lived peaceably for a winter and then tried to sail away home.

Towards the end of Arctic Labyrinth, noting that Britain ceded its Arctic ter¬ritories to Canada in 1880, Williams touches on the three voyages under¬taken on behalf of the Canadian gov¬ernment by Joseph-Elzéar Bernier. He rightly describes Bernier, a French Cana¬dian born in 1852, as sailing “to confirm Canadian sovereignty over the Arctic archipelago at a time when the nationals of other powers were increasingly active in the region.”

Bernier’s greatest moment came on July 1, 1909, when he erected a plaque at Winter Harbour on Melville Island in the Northwest Passage, first reached from the Atlantic by William Edward Parry in 1819. In Joseph-Elzéar Bernier: Champion of Canadian Sovereignty, biog¬rapher Marjolaine Saint-Pierre wisely lets Bernier himself describe that occa¬sion. The captain and his men drank a toast to the Dominion and the prime minister, and “then all assembled around Parry’s Rock to witness the unveiling of a tablet placed at the Rock, commemo¬rating the annexing of the whole of the Arctic archipelago.”

Saint-Pierre’s book includes a rare and spectacular photo of this occasion — one that, had it been spotted ear¬lier, would almost certainly have been included in the recent book 100 Photos That Changed Canada. This group shot at Parry’s Rock is one of more than two hundred black-and-white illustrations included in Saint-Pierre’s work, which looks to be the definitive biography of Bernier.

Ably translated by William Barr, overwhelming in detail, the book traces Bernier’s career from ancestry to legacy. It highlights his hopes of becoming the first to reach the North Pole and the first to sail through the Northwest Passage in a single season. Saint-Pierre shows how government indifference thwarted these dreams.

In his three main voyages, which he undertook between 1906 and 1911, Bernier charted no new lands. But he gathered records left by explorers of the previous century, set up new cairns and monuments, and raised the Canadian flag throughout the Arctic. By these symbolic actions, he strengthened Can¬ada’s claims to the Arctic archipelago.

Both these books belong in the library of any Arctic aficionado.



— Ken McGoogan (Read Bio)