I’ve had this blog for two years and I haven’t even touched a book out of this series yet! What’s wrong with me? (I was convinced these books are boring, that’s what.)
Graves Of Ice: The Lost Franklin Expedition, George Chambers, The Northwest Passage, 1845¸John Wilson, 2014.
Side note: if you can get through this whole review without getting Stan Rogers’ Northwest Passage stuck in your head, you’re a better person than I am. I spent two days reading this book and fully ¾ of that time I spent trying to remember the words to the world’s most mournful song after The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, which coincidentally is also about shipwrecks.
Anyway, I have been avoiding the I Am Canada series because I was convinced they were boring, but this one was not! And to be honest the only reason I picked it is because it’s actually already out of date. The two ships involved, the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror have been located in the Arctic (the Terror just this year!), exactly where Inuit hunters had been telling the idiot white people to go and look for them. (This is true, by the way.) So while the expedition was lost in the sense that everyone died, the remains of their ships and many of the crew members have been located. So now I suppose it’s the “doomed” Franklin Expedition? Is that better?
Also I have to note here as well that I feel like Terror is a horrible name for a ship bound to be on an expedition to a terrifying land where there’s every chance that everyone will die. I wouldn’t get on it.
The protagonist, George, is a young man growing up in Woolwich, and the son of a former Royal Marine. As a youth he befriends this street kid named Davy and winds up almost helping him dig up a dead body out of a graveyard, as a resurrection man, and when George quails at this and the nasty guy they’re helping threatens to kill him, Davy kills the dude to save George. You might say that after this, George owes him.
As we skip forward some time, George’s father calls in a favour to get George in as a cabin boy on the Franklin expedition. They’re slated to be gone for three years seeking the Northwest Passage through the terrible ice and snow that’s only half figured out, and who do you think is going to be aboard the Erebus too? Davy, that’s who. They pack all the supplies needed for THREE YEARS at sea aboard the two ships (including thirty-one tons of flour), and George discounts the stories of one of the men who has an experience as a whaler in the northern oceans because he’s convinced this is going to be a fantastic and exciting expedition.
It doesn’t actually take all that long to reach the coast of Greenland, and they need to tie up there in order to take some magnetic readings at the end of August. That pretty well wraps up the year, as they can’t go anywhere in the winter ice, so they spend the winter months moored up there and the first one of the party dies of tuberculosis. (Unanswered question for history and this novel: why a man with tuberculosis was even on an extremely dangerous trip through the Arctic.) This is where we see the first stirrings of interpersonal conflict, because George spends a lot of time with the officers he’s serving and thinks they’re great, and Davy is convinced they’re all toffs who don’t know what they’re doing and George is being a class traitor. This is also important.
In the spring they send out an exploring party, one of whom dies en route, and the ship is able to sail again in JULY. Holy crap, that’s a long time spent hanging around doing nothing. They make it all the way to the tip of King William Island, which is where they end up settling things for the winter. They’re at the limits of the “known world” now, and everyone thinks it’s an easy trip through the last strait and they’ll be the discoverers of the Northwest Passage, and famous forever. (Spoiler alert: no.) An exploratory party goes out, including their leader, Sir John Franklin, and when they come back Franklin just up and dies. This is also not a good omen.
Then they’re trapped by a horrible blizzard, just after two exploratory parties go out again, and ten of the sixteen men there die, too. They’re dropping like flies. An Inuit group comes to see them, and there’s almost an incident when Davy throws a fit that one of the Inuit men tries to take his knife. Fitzjames, the officer George spends most of his time serving, tells George that there is every chance that if the ice doesn’t release them, they will all probably die, and they might be forced to search out the Inuits and beg them for help. I have no idea what the intended effect is here, but George is pretty freaked out.
At this point—March of 1848—they’re fully aware that they are trapped and dying in the ice. They all have scurvy, they don’t think their food will last much longer, and they have no idea when the ice will release their ships. They have a little hope when they spot a herd of reindeer and a flock of seabirds and eat well, and they set up in a spring camp on the ice, but everyone is so desperately unhappy that rebellion is afoot. Davy is at the heart of it, unsurprisingly, saying that he and some of the other enlisted men want to head to Fury Beach, where there’s supplies cached and whaling ships pass by and a chance for rescue. They begin to threaten mutiny, and it comes very, very close to an all-out fight before the ship’s doctor restores some sanity. The new plan is that the doctor will stay back with some of the men who are too ill to move, and the others will return to the ships and pray that the ice will let them go.
The Terror is in horrible shape, so they salvage what they can and make their way south very slowly in the limping Erebus instead. They make it to October and decide they need to go back over the ice for the camp there, and who stumbles up to them but Davy—so delirious with frostbite and starvation that he can’t manage words. When he recovers enough to tell them what happened, he says that some of the men began to get sicker and sicker and the doctor couldn’t help. The healthy ones tried to head back to the ships, several dying along the way, until it’s just Davy and another mate, Johnny, and they have nothing left to eat. So they EAT THE DEAD MEN OMG OMG OMG OMG and then Davy dies right after telling this story. Aughghgh this is the worst!!!! This is so gross and horrifying!!!!!
The rest of the remaining men start dying faster until there’s only twenty of them or so left. They decide to make for an escape, but make it only to Boothia Felix, a large peninsula, where they set up camp and can’t go any further. It’s just George and Fitzjames left, both starving to death, with water to drink and nothing to eat but lichen scraped off rocks. Fitzjames is very close to death, barely conscious, when George spots some old barrel staves along the shore and collects them for a fire. Then, miracle—there’s a deer—George manages to kill it and eats the liver raw. Fitzjames tells him it doesn’t matter. “Now his cheekbones threatened to burst through his skin, and his eyes were dark-rimmed and sunken. His beard was patchy and his filthy hair straggled over his ears and down his back. When he spoke, his thin lips pulled back over bleeding gums and missing teeth.” Oh my god.
During the night, the meat from the deer disappears—stolen, probably by foxes. And then Fitzjames dies, and George is alone.
Then there’s a very short epilogue written in first-person of George, alone, settling down to sleep and hoping that tomorrow there might be a ship.
Rating: B+. This is a horrifying book! And fascinating! I was legit gripped by it, couldn’t put it down, all that good stuff. I hesitate to give it the full A rating because it was a bit heavy on the scholarly details, and in an effort to cover three years in just over 160 small pages, it tends to be a little speedy and could have included more detail and a better idea of exactly when everything was happening. But one of the best things about this book was that George is a very realistic character—he genuinely wants to do the right thing, and he really respects the officers he works for, but he’s torn between them and Davy, representing the world he comes from. It’s truly very well done and an excellent book, and it bodes very well for the rest of the I Am Canada series that I will eventually get to!