Apr/May 2006 Book Reviews

A Survey of Recent Books on Arctic Exploration

by Colleen Mondor

I first became fascinated by Polar literature when I took a class in grad school about Arctic explorers. Part of the coursework included reading books by and about the explorers, particularly those who went North in the mid to latter part of the 19th century. I grew up in Florida so I had absolutely no basis for my fascination with these people, but I was hooked pretty quickly. I think a big part of the reason was our textbook, Arctic Grail by Pierre Berton. I managed to get an entire degree in history without ever hearing of Berton, which is a shame. He's an amazing writer and Arctic Grail is a perfect example of how exciting a well written history book can be. It was through Berton that I first learned of American explorer Elisha Kent Kane, and the more I read about him, the more I wanted to know.

Kane made two trips to the North, both as searches for the doomed British explorer Sir John Franklin. The Arctic was just one more stop though in a life spent seeing as much of the world as possible. In his twenties, Kane visited South America, Asia, Africa and Europe. By the time he set off in 1850 on the first Grinnell Expedition looking for Franklin, it was nothing for Kane to be disappearing over the horizon. The book he wrote about that journey ended up being a best-seller, and an American icon was born.

But wait--it gets even better.

In his recent and fascinating book Exploring Other Worlds David Chapin takes a long look at not only Kane and the "culture of curiosity" into which he was born, but also the popular spiritualist Margaret Fox. Fox and her sisters are credited with starting the American spiritualist movement, and their "spirit raps" which were caused by secretly manipulating their toe joints, made them media darlings and national stars. Maggie Fox and Elisha Kane had precious little in common, except for their celebrity, but that didn't stop them from falling in love. Whether or not they ever married is a mystery due to Kane's early death in 1857. Maggie kept Kane's letters,1 however, which shift from paternal instructions on proper behavior, to intense romantic longing. She swore they had meant the world to each other, which seemed to most rational minds to be impossible. Kane was a privileged man of science, Maggie a poor country girl who helped to create a lie that captivated the country (and trapped her within it for decades). Chapin believes that both Kane and Maggie were perfect examples of their times--people who explored different realms and then told the public about what they saw and heard there. In many ways to the people in the mid-1800s, the spirit world was not that unlike the Arctic. They still believed in the mythical Open Polar Sea back then (something Kane claimed to have seen himself) so the rappings of the Fox sisters were not a stretch of the imagination. And as Nancy Rubin Stuart shows in her biography, The Reluctant Spiritualist, Maggie Fox was a beautiful woman, and Americans are always more than happy to believe what a pretty face tells them.

So Kane and Maggie Fox spent time together--a lot of time together. They spent enough time in each other's company to drive both sets of parents into a bit of a tizzy--hers because he didn't seem too interested in marriage but walked the fine line of propriety by seeing her too much and his because Maggie wasn't "good enough." The lovers didn't seem to care, (some things never change) although Stuart shows that Kane was sensitive to the pressures of his parents and kept his relationship with Maggie both unofficial and secretive. Added to the pressures she was already under to constantly perform, it is no surprise that she became desperately unhappy. After Kane died, and she was left alone with the memory of a relationship that seemed all too easy for everyone to deny, Maggie started a slow and painful decline into alcoholism, poverty and eventual obscurity. Interestingly, Kane also began to slowly disappear from the national memory, something that seems impossible to believe from the description of his funeral in Chapin's book.

Kane's funeral procession had developed into a nationwide celebration of the values he was held to represent. Thousands of Americans in New Orleans, Columbus, Louisville, Baltimore, Philadelphia and other cities, who knew neither one another nor Kane, all could imagine themselves as part of the same nation, despite growing sectional conflict of the era... in a public letter to Judge Kane [his father]: "You must know that the reputation of your son belongs to the American public, and will be cherished as a part of the nation's wealth. His heroic devotion to humanity and science has conferred imperishable glory upon his country."

It's hard to believe how quickly and completely Kane and Fox could be forgotten and how easily their lives could disappear into historical obscurity.

For me, reading these books in tandem was a rich literary experience. As a biography, Stuart is focused on Maggie, with Kane playing only a secondary role. After reading Chapin's book that details Kane's voyages and experiences in greater detail, understanding Maggie's trials and tribulations was critical. As Chapin shows, Kane portrayed himself as a great man of science, dedicated to reaching beyond existing borders to find the secret worlds hidden outside the average man's reach. But he treated Maggie in such a classically male way, and I hate to write that, as Stuart has most certainly not written a feminist text, but I can't shake the comparison, in such a controlling and chauvinistic manner that it is important to know Maggie's story and see how their relationship began and evolved over the years in order to completely understand Kane. You must read Stuart's book to understand why Maggie was so agreeable to Kane's control and you must read Chapin's book to understand why the explorer could not resist Maggie's mysteries. And both do an excellent job of rescuing these historical giants from the dustbins of history. Elisha Kent Kane and Margaret Fox were fascinating people and responsible not just for changing history, but for making history. The fact that they also fell in love just makes their stories that much more compelling and elevates the twin sorrows of Kane's early death and Fox's devastating loneliness to the level of American tragedy.

Elisha Kent Kane was not the only explorer to go in search of John Franklin. In fact, I often thought in class that it was insane just how many other men risked their lives in attempts to find the remains of Franklin and his crew (there were literally dozens of dead sailors in the wake of Franklin's mistakes). Charles Francis Hall was one of the more intriguing men to go north--ten years after Kane's initial voyage. Hall conducted three expeditions, even though he never had any formal training as a scientist, and was surprisingly successful in many of his endeavors. Management was not his strong suit, however, and he died on his third voyage, in 1871, under mysterious circumstances that were later proven by biographer Charles Loomis to have been arsenic poisoning. Believe it or not though, it was not until after Hall died that the Polaris Expedition took a really bizarre turn.

In a horrible storm, and fearful of sinking, the crew of the Polaris prepared to abandon ship off the coast of Greenland. Nineteen of the crew, including several Eskimo men, women and children who had joined the expedition as hunters and interpreters, jumped onto an ice floe along with a cache of supplies. The ship broke away before they could reboard however and they were left stranded to drift with the ice for what became a six-and-a-half-month ordeal. Ironically, the ship did not sink, but what happened to the people left behind on the ice transcended any story about Hall or his expedition. The true Polaris story became one of endurance and treachery as nineteen individuals with little in common were forced to rely on each other despite deep distrust and even hatred. They did all survive, but as Steve Heighton dramatizes in his novel, Afterlands the impact of those ice-filled months upon the people who experienced it was incalculable. In particular three members of the expedition, Lt. George Tyson, the ranking American officer, Roland Kruger, a German seaman and the Inuit interpreter, who was called Hannah, were deeply affected. Heighton explores what happened afterwards to the three of them and in the process crafts a larger story about those who go into the great unknown and then are forced to live again among everyone else after they return.

One of the less surprising things to happen on the ice was the division that developed along ethnic lines. Tyson later wrote a popular book about the months spent drifting and characterized himself as a great leader and the German members of the crew as agitators for unrest and even dangerous. Heighton relied heavily upon Tyson's book while writing his novel and easily saw that the American fell into the trap of glorifying himself at the expense of others. There had to be heroes and villains of course; there always are in the human condition, but Tyson's insistence that he was the hero, and his constant public statements to that effect, in time made it difficult for anyone to believe anything about what went wrong with the fragmented Polaris Expedition. To address the uneven historical record, Heighton dramatizes the later life of Kruger and considers what might have happened to the German after he returned. He also alludes to relationships (both real and perceived) between Hannah and both men and then returns to New England with her and sees how the tragedy of the Polaris continued to play out with such horrible predictability in the life of the one person who least deserved it.

After reading Heighton's lyrical work, and absorbing the possible future lives for these stunted explorers, Sheila Nickerson's biography of Hannah, Midnight to the North provides an excellent factual look at the life of the Inuit woman. Nickerson sought to bring some long overdue attention to Hannah, or Tookoolito, after stumbling across Tyson's journal while reading Farley Mowat's Polar Passion. I am always intrigued by how historians and biographers find their subjects and Nickerson's commitment to finding more about Hannah, while admitting it is "easy to be lost in the Arctic, especially if you are a woman, and even more so if you are a young woman or a girl" was especially interesting. Nickerson has often been intrigued by the woman of the Arctic, she admits being obsessed by her subject, and in the book's introduction lists several who have been completely ignored by history. Expedition records were written by the male explorers however and all too often it was both their inclination and habit to give only the barest mention to Native women who accomplished great deeds while aiding the men. Nickerson hit pay dirt with Hannah's story, because she traveled widely outside the North and also died in Connecticut. There was a viable document trail for her life. Hannah's life was a chance to save a true northern explorer from obscurity and Nickerson jumped at it. Her book is an impressive and evocative look at a life that was beyond amazing and certainly worthy of remembrance.

After reading the books about Elisha Kane and the Polaris survivors I thought I had sensed a developing pattern in books on Arctic exploration. They focused on the people who went North, on the events surrounding specific voyages, on spectacular successes and failures. The books are good--usually really good--but by definition they are narrow in their focus. They are about one expedition, one leader, one goal. (Even Berton's Arctic Grail which started my love for the genre, is written in a chapter-per-expedition format.) Then my editor at Booklist asked me to review Joanna Kavenna's book The Ice Museum. As I read this gorgeous combination of history, travelogue and personal musing, all my long held notions about Arctic titles vanished. I figured out that these books, all of these books, are about the North, first and foremost. In the beginning they are about the North.

They are romances, really, only the attraction is for a place and the longing is for another time.

Kavenna has written an amazing book about the mythical land of Thule, a place first mentioned in the fourth century B.C. by the Greek explorer Pytheas. What really made me fall in love with this book was not only the history and mystery of Thule, both of which Kavenna explores with great aplomb, but her own interest in Thule's hold on the literary and political imaginations of so many different people. From Adolf Hitler to Richard Burton, Kavenna takes a look at what has made Thule so appealing. She travels from the Shetland Islands to Estonia quoting literary greats and great explorers along the way. She also comes to her own conclusions about Thule and what it means and has managed to craft a truly unique book about the Arctic. It is a compelling title and a remarkably human one as well. It was the perfect book to finish off my recent look at the Arctic, and the fact that it showed up in my mailbox on its own seemed both serendipitous and wildly appropriate. It's very cool how the universe works sometimes, very cool.

I'm glad that the Arctic continues to attract the eyes and ears of good writers, and that these current titles further illuminate what we know about Arctic exploration. As a group, these five books are an excellent introduction to the region and the people who are drawn to it. I found them equally enthralling and look forward to future works by these authors, all of whom have found ways to impress this Arctic history geek.


David Chapin.
Exploring Other Worlds.
University of Massachusetts Press. 2004. 220 pp.
ISBN 1-55849-457-X

Nancy Rubin Stuart.
The Reluctant Spiritualist.
Harcourt. 2005. 362 pp.
ISBN 0-15-101013-7

Steven Heighton.
Houghton Mifflin. 2006. 416 pp.
ISBN 0-618-13934-6

Sheila Nickerson.
Midnight to the North.
Tarcher/Putnam. 2002. 184 pp.
ISBN 1-58542-133-2

Joanna Kavenna.
The Ice Museum.
Viking. 2006. 294 pp.
ISBN 0-670-03473-8


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