Literary Review of Canada

The April issue of The Literary Review of Canada carried a terrific review of Race to the Polar Sea. Editor Bronwyn Drainie encourages authors to respond to reviews, and I happily did so. The May issue of LRC, which is turning up now in better bookstores, carries letters from John Ralston Saul and Stephen Clarkson, as well as the following from yours truly.

Re: “Frozen Moments,” by Mark Lovewell (April 2009).

In his generous, insightful review of my book Race to the Polar Sea, Mark Lovewell poses questions that reflect a serious engagement with the work. He asks whether Elisha Kent Kane, the focus of this biographical narrative, “fully deserves the resuscitated reputation McGoogan gives him.” He notes that, in Lady Franklin’s Revenge, I “finessed” the challenge of re-contextualizing John Rae, the subject of Fatal Passage; and he suggests that, in Polar Sea, it “would have been well worth the effort” to reprise that approach, and to situate Kane in relation to Rae.

These related challenges spring from one misconception. Polar Sea is not the latest instalment in a “string of exploration biographies,” as Lovewell believes, but the fourth and final volume in an Arctic Discovery Quartet.

Now it can be told: while “meticulous research” is indeed integral to my methodology, my approach is not scholarly and analytical but literary. The work’s architecture I “borrowed” from Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, which I regard as brilliantly conceived (though so grotesquely overwritten that today I find it impenetrable).

The four-part structure of both quartets is akin to that of the conventional pop song: verse, verse, bridge, verse. Durrell’s three “verses” are first-person accounts, the last of which signals a significant shift. In the pop song, the bridge differs from the verses in melody, measure and rhyme scheme. Durrell’s bridging novel, the third in the quartet, finds an omniscient, third-person narrator re-contextualizing events from a distance. Dramatic difference is part of the point.

In my Arctic Discovery Quartet, the three “verses” – Fatal Passage, Ancient Mariner and Polar Sea — are stand-alone narratives that treat individual explorers who developed exemplary relations with aboriginal peoples. And my final verse, Race to the Polar Sea, marks a significant shift: starting with Elisha Kent Kane, explorers turned from seeking the Northwest Passage to making for the North Pole. My bridging volume, Lady Franklin’s Revenge, treats Arctic exploration from a distance, and re-contextualizes it.

In a way, Lovewell is right. A comparison of John Rae and Elisha Kent Kane would be well worth the effort. And including Samuel Hearne would only enrich the result. But such an analysis is the province of the academic dissertation. To introduce it into the narrative of Polar Sea would be to sing the melody of the “bridge” to the lyric of the “verse” – painfully wrong.

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