Former Herald editor’s new book about doomed Franklin expedition caps off 25-year obsession with Arctic exploration
By Eric Volmers/ Calgary Herald, Oct. 27, 2023
Ken McGoogan calls” himself “a still voice crying in the wilderness.”
It’s an appropriate image for the author and former journalist. While his books have covered a wide variety of topics over the years, he has become known as an expert on the Arctic wilderness and those who explored it.
His most recent book, Searching for Franklin: New Answers to the Great Arctic Mystery, is his sixth work about the Arctic. It’s not the first time Sir John Franklin has appeared in McGoogan’s books. Lady Franklin’s Revenge: A True Story of Ambition, Obsession and the Remaking of Arctic History, published in 2005, focused on Sir John’s devoted wife, who bucked the male-dominated world of Arctic exploration after her husband disappeared in 1845 and she managed to turn him into a heroic legend.2017’s Dead Reckoning: The Untold Story of the Northwest Passage, also involved Franklin but McGoogan also used it as an opportunity to highlight Inuit heroes such as Thanadelthur, Akaitcho, Tattanoeuck, Ouligbuck, Tookoolito and Ebierbing who have received far less attention than Franklin. In Fatal Passage: The Untold Story of John Rae, the Arctic Adventurer Who Discovered the Fate of Franklin, published in 2001, McGoogan highlighted the unheralded work of a long-forgotten fur trader who discovered the gruesome fate of the lost Franklin expedition, where the final survivors resorted to cannibalism. For revealing an uncomfortable truth about Franklin and tarnishing his heroic image, Rae was erased from history in Victorian England.All of those books deflated the Franklin myth to a certain degree. “I’ve been thundering away about this for almost 25 years now, over two decades certainly,” says McGoogan, from his home in Guelph, Ont. Still, before he started working on Searching for Franklin, McGoogan had not written a book directly about the explorer. He credits his long-time friend, Inuit historian Louie Kamookak, for convincing him it was time to write his “big Franklin book.” Certainly, the public still seems to have an unquenchable curiosity about Franklin and his doomed 1845 expedition to find the Northwest Passage, which ended with him and 128 of his men dying. In an essay for the Toronto Star earlier this year, McGoogan wrote about the continued interest in Franklin and the reams of research that has gone into attempts to unravel the “great Arctic mystery.”In the book, McGoogan offers his theory as to what is still considered history’s worst Arctic disaster: The men ate bad meat. “The answer is trichinosis,” he told Postmedia earlier this year.But McGoogan also takes a broader look at the character of Franklin and how this played a part. The book focuses on both the 1845 expedition and an earlier one that went from 1819 to 1822. The Royal Navy’s Arctic Overland expedition was another debacle that had Franklin losing 11 of his 20 men after refusing to heed the advice of Akaitcho, a Dene leader, and a Metis leader named Pierre St. Germain.“When they got to the Arctic coast, this was after two years of brutal slogging essentially, Akaitcho and St. Germain are telling him, ‘Look, we can’t go east in those canoes because there is not food, this is too late in the year. You’re not going to see any Inuit along there, all the animals have gone inland.’ They said ‘Look, if you go along there you’re not going to come back, we’re not going to see you again.’ Franklin figured he knew better. He figured, too, that the good Lord was on his side so everything would be OK.”A veteran journalist, McGoogan arrived at the Calgary Herald in 1979 from the Montreal Star, which suddenly closed down. Before long, he had taken over the Herald’s books section as its editor, a position he held until 1999. It was during his time at the Herald that McGoogan won a three-month press fellowship at the University of Cambridge. At that point, he had published three novels and figured he would write a new one in Cambridge modelled on A.S. Byatt’s 1990 historical romance Possession.“It had a contemporary story framing a historical story,” McGoogan says. “John Rae, the explorer, was going to provide the historical story. When I got to Cambridge and started going through his papers, because they are there, I said ‘Wait a minute? This guy Rae has been ripped off. These Franklin lovers usurped his position and virtually destroyed his reputation when he is the guy who is far more deserving of these accolades.’ So I set the fiction aside, set the novel aside, because people would say ‘That’s just fiction, we don’t have to worry about it.’ I wanted to set the record straight. That’s how I turned to it in the first place and that’s when I wrote Fatal Passage. I won four or five awards which set me on this path. This has been perhaps my chief obsession.”McGoogan sees for Searching for Franklin as the final book in a four-book series that includes Fatal Passage, Lady Franklin’s Revenge and Dead Reckoning. Does he still have more to say about the Arctic? “I feel like I finished a cycle there,” he says. “Never say never, but it may well be my swan song on the Arctic.”With files from Jamie Portman, Postmedia News