|Jan/Feb 2007 Book Reviews|
In the many books published or reissued each year on polar exploration there is a small subgenre developing which considers just why such titles still hold a grip on western imagination. Author Sarah Moss is particularly curious about how Arctic and Antarctic travelers have "seized the popular imagination" for over a century. She looks as far back as the Viking settlers who mysteriously disappeared after carving out lives in Greenland in the fifteenth century and delves into the continuous fascination of doomed twentieth century explorer Robert Falcon Scott. From those who died on the ice to those who went decades later to find their remains, Moss discovers an endless array of individuals who could not resist the lure of the polar extremes. She even considers the cases of Lewis Carroll and A.A. Milne, two children's authors who found ways to work voyages to the poles into their work. Moss is intrigued, chagrined and endlessly fascinated herself by how westerners continue to romanticize landscapes of ice and her book, The Frozen Ship is as tightly written an analysis of this attraction as the casual reader is likely to ever find.
The amount of research Moss has conducted in her study is both impressive and riveting—it has brought her to all manner of obscure records and remembrances by those who sought fame, fortune or answers to deep mysteries in their travels to the north or south polar regions. She recounts Hans Egede's search for the missing Viking settlers over two hundred years after the last word from them was received. His concern was for matters purely spiritual, as Moss explains: "Egede was particularly concerned that the Norse Greenlanders had had no contact with the church for so long, and worried about the souls of those who must have folk memories of Christianity, but had no one to guide them in the ways of salvation." Faced with ruins in the Norse Western Settlement, Egede convinced himself that the settlers were absorbed into the Inuit tribes and that the far Eastern Settlement was still a teeming Norse establishment, although sadly, "...just out of sight beyond the next range of hills." He busied himself with educating and converting the Inuit, always believing that he was in the presence of distantly related Norseman. Moss follows the story of the missing settlements beyond Egede, however, to twentieth century archaeologists who have found a more prosaic explanation for the missing settlers—they moved to better lands in Newfoundland and the Greenland colony died out through attrition rather than sudden abandonment. The more interesting aspect of all these colony questions, though, is why the disappearance of settlers from the 1300 and 1400s would still command our attention six hundred years later. Moss believes it is the "not knowing" that makes them an irresistible lure: "Partly because of this mysterious ending, the story is one of the origins of later interest in the Arctic. The fantasy of the homeland is always fundamental to ideas of elsewhere, of unknown destinations, and here, it seems, is a homeland that was indeed a refuge from the political complexities of high medieval Europe, a real alternative to life in the metropolis."
Edward Beauclerk Maurice would certainly agree with Moss' assertion about "a refuge," as he left England for Canada in 1930 hoping to find just that. Maurice was a victim of the relentless class structure in Great Britain and had grown up in his grandmother's house as the son of the housekeeper. After his father's death his grandmother hired her daughter-in-law, providing no cash salary, but food and board for her grandchildren.
I'm sure the holiday dinners must have been delightful.
They all wanted out of the situation, but it was twelve long years before Maurice's eldest brother was able to leave for a job on a farm in New Zealand. Another brother followed two years later and the plan was set that Maurice, his sister and mother would follow as soon as Maurice was finished with school. He became restless with the idea of farming, however, and when he learned of a talk at school from the visiting archdeacon in charge of the missionaries in the Canadian Arctic, he jumped at the chance. Maurice found himself entranced by the movies of the white landscape and the information on the Hudson's Bay Company, the centuries old company that had established trading posts across Canada (and even into Alaska). Hudson's Bay employed apprentices who had little or no experience. Maurice was determined to be one, and set out on a path to find employment with the "Gentlemen Adventurers."
The most refreshing thing about Maurice's book and what he experienced working in both Pangnirtung, the furthest north post on the line, and Ward Inlet further south but also on Baffin Island, is that nothing horrible happened. He did have to cope with inexplicable illnesses among the villagers and there were the deaths of friends, but they died from sickness, not due to any one of countless preventable mistakes or as a result of poor planning. The things that happen in Maurice's book—the hunts, the parties, even a night spent at an abandoned haunted whaling station—are remarkable more for their sheer humanness than anything else. They are about events and people who lived in one of the most remote regions of the world over seventy years ago, but Maurice has so beautifully captured the commonality of his experiences, that readers will feel instantly comfortable with his stories; they will believe that where he went and what he did are not exotic or outrageous. He truly will feel like an old friend and his home in the Canadian Arctic, although much colder than their own, will still be somehow familiar. This is due to Maurice's great talent as a writer, which is all the more remarkable as Gentleman Adventurer was his only book and he passed away in 2003, just as it was being readied for publication.
There are so many parts of Gentlemen that prove to be delightful or startling, that it is hard to choose which to highlight in a review. From his solitary night on the whaling station, to his recollection of two pilots from Chicago dropping down out of nowhere in search of fuel while enroute to Europe, he maintains a constant attitude of good natured bemusement toward everything his new position has to offer. (The flight crew is the only example of one of those ill-prepared expeditions and Maurice would eventually learn that a letter he had given the pilots to mail was recovered two years later from an oilskin wallet pulled up in the nets of a crew of Danish fisherman. The plane was never found, but the wallet appeared in Denmark Strait, between Iceland and Greenland.) The subtitle of Maurice's book is "Coming of Age in the Arctic" and he truly does mature far beyond his years as he learns to handle all the responsibilities of trade that his community so relies upon. The friendships he made in the North clearly lingered with him for the rest of his life, during which he eventually settled into a career as a bookseller. (Oh how I wish he had written a book about that!) Maurice's book is one of going someplace exotic and new and immersing yourself completely in all that it has to offer. He suffered some hardships, some pain from the illness and death of friends, but mostly he loved every blessed moment of his life in the north. That makes his book the best combination of exploration and memoir. It is honest and enjoyable and never makes you want to throw the book across the room, something I cannot say is true about another story of the Canadian wilderness, The Lure of the Labrador Wild.
I want to be clear that Labrador Wild is a very well written and fascinating memoir, even though it was originally published over 100 years ago. It is however a book about one of those ill-fated expeditions that recall so many moments in which the wrong decision was made, the right impulse ignored, that the reader is left wondering why on earth anyone ever leaves home seeking wilderness adventure. In this case the author is certain why he and his friend left New York for the Labrador interior, even though he was the only one to come back. After they buried Leonidas Hubbard, Dillon Wallace wrote:
"Doubtless some will see in his brave life's struggle only a determination to win for himself a recognized place as a writer and expert upon out-of-door life; but those who were privileged to enjoy his intimacy know that the deep, underlying purpose of the man was to fit himself to deliver to the world a message that he felt to be profoundly true—a message that should inspire his fellow men to encounter the battle of life without flinching, that should make them realize that unceasing endeavor and loyalty to God, their conscience and their brothers are indeed worthwhile. He died before he reached the goal of his ambition, but I do not believe that his message was undelivered."
I have to be honest, I just don't see the purity of Hubbard's message but the fact that Wallace's book was an instant success and went through six printings the first year it was released has made me think long and hard about just why a story about two New Yorkers with a Canadian guide who stumble blindly through the Canadian wilderness hoping to explore and map a relatively unknown lake (Michikamau) should have resonated so much with a public that was largely untouched by any idea of wilderness. That fact that his book spawned further expeditions, even a race of sorts, only proves what Sarah Moss asserts in The Frozen Ship: "As the enduring and immense popularity of books about Arctic and Antarctic disasters demonstrates, the far north and south are places of death, where heroes go to test their heroism to its sublunary limits. More than that, they are places where the limits of heroism are recorded, written into the landscape and into the body and onto the notebooks or the wax tablets that lie beside the body."
So the appeal now, as it was then, is to see the heroes tested and even if they fail, their willingness to try makes them eternally worthy of our attention. Even if they starve to death in the middle of nowhere after one too many wrong turns, Moss knows what matters is that they tried, thus they are heroic. In the case of Leonidas Hubbard, who would otherwise have been forgotten, the essential component of his path to eternal heroic martyrdom was the writing skill of his friend Wallace. Not only did he survive with a valid record of what had transpired in their search for the mouth of Lake Michikamau, he also got to work right away, with the help of a journalist, on a book about the journey. Even though Wallace could not save his friend, he did establish his legacy. And as Hubbard hoped to use the trip to establish a career as an outdoor writer, in many ways it was through Wallace that he posthumously achieved his career goal. But it's a hard story to read, a painful one, because both of them are so hopeful when they head north in 1903, so certain they are on their way to becoming bona fide explorers. And as one bad turn after another takes place, as the evidence mounts of their ill preparation in the face of an approaching winter, Wallace's continuous words of hope and optimism are all that much harder to bear. The truth is that Hubbard never had a chance, not from the moment their luck first ran out, and that Wallace would have died too without the help of their guide George (who very nearly died himself). It is bittersweet to read Wallace's words of admiration for his dead friend, because they simply are not true. And yet as readers familiar with Jon Krakauer's bestselling 1996 tale of Alaskan starvation, Into the Wild will attest, there is something about men willing to die for adventure that makes us very forgiving. As long as they try, we will embrace them, and if they die, then we may very well exalt them too.
Moss recalls the biggest examples of heroic death in chapters on Scott and Franklin, Andree and even Greeley, where cannibalism tainted the tragedy's value. The greatest polar story though has arguably always been that of Shackleton, the explorer who was not able to even embark on his mission to cross Antarctica but through steadfast determination and sheer guts did save his men. The way most schoolchildren learn it, Shackleton brought them all back from his doomed ship, the Endurance. But as author Kelly Tyler-Lewis so eloquently reveals in her book, The Lost Men, there was another side to Shackleton's expedition—another whole group of men on a separate ship who were tasked with establishing supply depots from the other side of the continent. A group of these men, from the Ross Sea Party, ended up stranded on the ice for two years after their ship was beset by storms and ice and could not wait for them to return from a sledging mission. The Ross survivors are heroes of another sort, men who fought bitterly amongst themselves, struggled to maintain order and discipline under the most trying and insane circumstances and also had to hope—against all hope—that rescue would come. How they maintained their sanity in the face of such overwhelming odds against survival is the subject of Tyler-Lewis' gripping narrative, a wonderfully well written book about men whom history has willfully forgotten.
It is important to note that Shackleton did mention the Ross Sea Party in his official book about the expedition but the reality was that very quickly, in the face of the First World War, the less pleasant aspects of the expedition were set aside in the face of the explorer's more impressive (and exciting) rescue of the Endurance Party. Tyler-Lewis' research found a treasure trove of documents which she briefly describes in her preface. As she recounts, "The common wisdom was that little had been preserved; an account published in 1982 stated that only two complete diaries of the Ross Sea expedition members had survived." The further she looked for information though, the more Tyler-Lewis found. Many survivors had left diaries and journals in the hands of descendants, or gave them to archives. Shackleton, like most expedition leaders, had required that all written records be given to him upon completion of the voyage but several of the men actually gave him copies and kept the unabridged originals. Bit by bit, she put all the disparate pieces of the puzzle together, along with "the Rosetta Stone," a collection of Shackleton's documents relating to the party, that had been donated to the Scott Polar Research Institute by the family in 2002. These included original orders from Shackleton, logs, letters, etc., "all permeated with a strange musky smell and smudged with soot." Tyler-Lewis took everything she found and then visited Hut Point, where the men lived and waited for rescue. She found them everywhere in that stretch of Antarctica's landscape, in graffiti on the walls of the hut, in the clothing still left behind, even in the preserved remains of a sled dog. She found the Ross Sea Party everywhere she looked, which begs the question, why was she the first one in eighty years to go in search of these men and their story?
The answer, from Moss' The Frozen Ship, would seem to be obvious. Shackleton's trip with five of his "fittest companions" in a small boat to the island of South Georgia where he would find help for the men and crew who had to abandon the Endurance, is the stuff of epic poetry. "This voyage of 800 miles across the most dangerous seas in the world has become the most famous achievement in polar exploration and like Bligh's return home after the mutiny on the Bounty or Barents' men's return from Spitzbergen, it seems like the attainment of the impossible." When concluding her passage on Shackleton, Moss notes that "...in the end he rescued all of them," thus completely ignoring the Ross Sea Party, still stranded and waiting for someone to bring them home. But then again, Moss' book is not about forgotten men, but exalted ones. It seems appropriate then that she would leave the Ross Sea Party out of her book, just as so many others have left them out as well.
Interestingly, one group Moss does study in depth and in a way that certainly no other author has considered is the people who are captivated by long-dead explorers. She looks at the work of anthropologist Owen Beattie and historian John Geiger, who exhumed the graves of three crew members from John Franklin's failed mid-nineteenth century expedition, whose resulting book claims "to show how the work of a Canadian scientist and his associates is helping to explain one of the great mysteries of British and world exploration." Beattie thought the bodies, in graves long known to Northern explorers, might still "hold secrets that could be exposed by the use of the latest equipment and methods employed in physical anthropology." But Moss points out that many others in Canada were not so sure that scientific truth was necessary in this case and she provides poet Jennifer Footman's gripping poem "For John Torrington," told from the perspective of one of the dead men's mothers, to illustrate how conflicted the challenges posed by science and history can be. "We are ashes and dust," writes Footman,
Perhaps in our next resurrection we'll find
dead scientists and dig them up to conclude
justify our own ends.
"Must we never leave our dead explorers alone?" Moss seems to wonder. "More than 100 years later, must we still demand that they answer our questions about the frozen landscape they now call home?"
In the end, Moss' book is the kind of literary exploration that seeks to find just what is it about some men and their struggles that so continues to captivate us. She does an eloquent and entertaining job of trying to answer that question, but I found her book to be more of a springboard than a conclusion. After reading Moss' chapters on so many different expeditions, missions and failed visions, I was drawn that much deeper into the works of Maurice, Wallace and Tyler-Lewis. I keep thinking that someone will be able to explain to me just why we humans go to the distant places, and what we hope to find there. I keep hoping someone will tell me what we are looking for in the cold; what we think we can learn in treacherous environments that eludes us in the civilized world.
I've been north and I'm still wondering, so it's no surprise to me that there are so many other readers out there who cannot help but wonder as well.
The Frozen Ship: The Histories and Tales of Polar Exploration
by Sarah Moss
BlueBridge (2006) 256 pp.
The Last Gentleman Adventurer: Coming of Age in the Arctic
by Edward Beauclerk Maurice
Houghton Mifflin (2005) 392 pp.
The Lure of the Labrador Wild
by Dillon Wallace
The Lyons Press (2006) 217 pp.
The Lost Men: The Harrowing Saga of Shackleton's Ross Sea Party
by Kelly Tyler-Lewis
Viking (2006) 283 pp.