Dead Reckoning hailed as transformative masterpiece

By Dave Obee

Victoria Times-Colonist Oct. 15, 2017

Dead Reckoning: The Untold Story of the Northwest Passage

By Ken McGoogan

HarperCollins, 438 pp., $33.99

The Arctic is not the place it used to be; climate change is taking care of that. It is still a challenging part of Canada, but warmer weather and the relative ease of navigation are opening up a region that contains some of this country’s greatest mysteries.

For more than a century and a half, many of those mysteries have had to do with Sir John Franklin, who led an ill-fated expedition into the Arctic in the 1840s, seeking the Northwest Passage to the Orient.

Franklin, all of his men and his ships disappeared — but over time, more and more evidence has been found, and with that, more has been determined about the fate of the Franklin expedition.

The two greatest discoveries are quite new. One of Franklin’s ships, Erebus, was discovered in 2014, and the other, Terror, was found in 2016. These two ships represent true sunken treasures, because the relics they contain — possibly including human remains — might answer many remaining questions about Arctic exploration.

That’s not the only difference. Today, there is a greater awareness of Indigenous involvement in the exploration and rescue missions. There is an acknowledgment that without the help of those who lived in the area, many more people would have died, and many of the Franklin mysteries would never have been solved.

Put it all together and the history of northern exploration needs to be rewritten. Books done a decade or more ago are out of date. As history is revealed, reshaped and reconsidered, we need a fresh assessment of Franklin and the other early adventurers, including the First Peoples who made it all possible.

Ken McGoogan’s Dead Reckoning helps fill that need. This book is a masterpiece, setting the standard for future works on Arctic exploration.

This is McGoogan’s fifth book on the Arctic and the explorers and adventurers who challenged that icy world. In Dead Reckoning, he draws from his past work, but weaves it all together in a more complex but highly readable account, enhanced with fresh insight based on the new discoveries as well as more extensive research.

For years, the conventional narrative of the Arctic has been based on names such as Franklin, Parry, McClure, Ross and Peary. McGoogan goes deeper into the story, introducing us to such figures as Thanadelthur, Akaitcho, Tattenoeuck, Ebierbing, Tulugaq and Tookoolito.

Some Inuit saw living members of the Franklin expedition, and others later found their bodies. They provided information to search parties led by Charles Francis Hall and Frederick Schwatka that helped them uncover crucial clues about the fate of the Franklin party. More recently, information from the Inuit helped drive the discovery of the two ships.

There are heroes and villains here, with Lady Franklin, Sir John’s widow, at the top of the list of antagonists. She pushed her husband to embark on his final expedition, and she led the way (with Charles Dickens) in dismissing the revelations of John Rae, and in denigrating his Inuit informants.

The end result could best be described as politics. Franklin’s fate became a matter of great controversy in England, with plenty of misinformation tossed this way and that. McGoogan deals with it in detail.

Over the years, many books have been written on the far north — but with the publication of Dead Reckoning, those early ones don’t matter the way they once did.

There is little to criticize in this book. It should be the starting point when considering the story of Arctic exploration from the 16th century onwards.

Beyond that, Dead Reckoning could be the best work of Canadian history this year.

Ken McGoogan will be in Victoria on Tuesday for a reading at Bolen Books in the Hillside shopping centre. The event will begin at 7 p.m.

The reviewer is the editor-in-chief of the Times Colonist.

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