Fatal Passage Q&A

Writer and editor Linda Richards did a superb job with this Q&A, which is why it still stands up. She published it in January Magazine. . . in April, 2002!

It has all of the earmarks of a gripping novel: exploration, adventure, tragedy and triumph. Even an earnest hero, a mystery and a villain. In fact, when Ken McGoogan came upon the story of Arctic adventurer John Rae, his first thought was for fiction. The further he delved into the perplexing story, however, the more important he thought it was. Writing it as fiction, McGoogan felt, would make the tale less credible. “So I set aside the novel project to tell the true story: to set the record straight.”

The story is almost beyond belief. According to McGoogan, John Rae is the actual discoverer of the final link of the Northwest Passage, not Sir John Franklin as the history books have always reported. Franklin’s party had been lost in the Arctic. Rae found out what happened to them. Back in England, Rae’s reports met with shock, horror and — ultimately — disbelief. Rae wrote that, “From the mutilated state of many of the corpses and the contents of the kettles, it is evident that our wretched countrymen had been driven to the last resource — cannibalism — as a means of prolonging existence.”

Leading those who vilified the returning adventurer was the unfortunate Sir John’s widow, Lady Jane Franklin, who wanted her late husband remembered as a hero: and certainly not be tainted by the brush of cannibalism. Exceedingly well connected, she enlisted the aid of friends in the highest places in her smear campaign against John Rae, including the leading novelist of the day, Charles Dickens.

While on a press fellowship at Cambridge, McGoogan stumbled over the beginnings of the mystery around why John Rae — by most accounts a good and decent man — had been denied his rightful place in history.

The author of four novels, former books editor at The Calgary Herald and author of the non-fiction Canada’s Undeclared War: Fighting Words from the Literary Trenches, McGoogan was able to bring all his writing skills to work with Fatal Passage. McGoogan himself describes the work as creative non-fiction, which he defines as “the application of fictional techniques to factual material.”

Linda Richards: I understand that you initially conceived Fatal Passage as a novel.

Ken McGoogan: I was going to write a novel. That was one of the interesting things about this, I was able to apply my background as a fiction writer to the factual material. I found that particular skill set very useful. And then combining it with the journalistic research skill set, which is different. But when I went to Cambridge … I initially thought I was going to write a contemporary novel with a historical aspect. The historical aspect focusing on John Rae.


When were you at Cambridge?

That would have been 1998, for three months in the fall.


Is that when you discovered the story of John Rae?

Yes. What happened was, I found out — after I realized I was going to try and write something about Rae — that they housed his unpublished autobiography at Cambridge. There’s a place called the Scott Polar Research Institute and they have this 821-page palimpsest — handwritten — that Rae put together and has never been published. In addition to all kinds of correspondence. And then there’s an extraordinary library at Cambridge in and of itself because it’s one of two or three holding libraries in the UK. Theoretically, at least, every book published in the UK has a home at Cambridge. So I had access to extraordinary resources there.

As I researched John Rae and his story I realized: Hey, wait a minute. This is far more important than I realized and if I write it as a novel, people will be able to dismiss it. They’ll say: Aw, McGoogan, he’s just making it up, we don’t have to take it seriously. I set aside the novel project to tell the true story: to set the record straight.


You brought your fiction skills with you to Fatal Passage. Did that help you flesh some things out?

Absolutely. One of the things I’ve been doing since I’ve become a full-time writer is doing a little teaching, as well. I’m very interested in questions of craft. I always have been. And in creative non-fiction, which I define in a nutshell as being the application of fictional techniques to factual material. So that’s precisely what I find myself doing. I certainly see this work as an example [of creative non-fiction]. And one of the interesting things for me [is that] it exhausted all the craft I have.


You said you wanted to tell the real story of John Rae. What were the false stories?

The central mythology is that surrounding Sir John Franklin. I don’t know about you, but when I was a boy I learned that the discoverer of the Northwest Passage was Sir John Franklin. What I discovered at Cambridge was that that is essentially a myth created by Lady Jane Franklin with the aid of Charles Dickens and a number of other establishment figures.


How did John Rae’s story get suppressed?

Because of the controversy. Rae returned to Victorian England with news of what had happened to the Franklin expedition: how it ended in disaster and degenerated into cannibalism. They did not want to hear that in Victorian England. And so they mounted a campaign to erase him from history, in effect. Attributing his discoveries and accomplishments to others, for example. And so Rae was well on his way to receiving a knighthood but suddenly — presto change-o — he became persona non grata as a result of the revelations that he made. And they made that stick. They didn’t want to hear from Rae because to hear from Rae was to accept the truth of cannibalism. And that was OK for Hottentots or Inuit, but it was not OK for a man of the Royal Navy.


Was it like killing the messenger? Because he told them what had happened and they — in one way or another — blamed him for it.

In effect that’s right. They were shooting the messenger. Maybe he shouldn’t have said anything. That was the thing about Rae: he had too much integrity to do that. If he’d kept his mouth shut — if he’d backed down and said: Oh, maybe I had it wrong. Maybe the Inuit are the murderers and savages you think they are. [They would have said:] OK John, here’s your knighthood. But he wasn’t prepared to sell out the Native Peoples. He wasn’t prepared to back down in that way. He insisted on sticking to his guns and holding to the truth and that’s one of the many reasons that I respect him so much.


Do Rae’s descendants know how poorly history has treated him?

Well, they’re finding out now when they’re reading my book.


But they didn’t know before?

Not really. No one has made the case and has looked at all of it before.


None of the family knew anything?

They all knew bits and pieces, but in the same way that we all know bits and pieces of our family: that at least is what people have been telling me so far. And they’re very excited about the book, as you can imagine.


Are you a Canadian?

Yes. Born and bred in Montreal.


And it’s funny, as a Canadian, that you discovered this person so important to Canadian history when you were at Cambridge.

Yeah. There were all kinds of ironies and synchronicities involved in this baby. It was something that I didn’t set out to do, either. It was like a gift that was given to me. You hear about that kind of thing happening: it was like a revelation happening on the road to Damascus. [A charming grin.] It was a gradual and growing unease initially, as I was there in Cambridge. And I had a very nice large room upstairs in a house. [Big enough to] walk around in, with a table over here and — nothing fancy, but quite comfortable.

And I can still remember: you see, first of all there was this growing unease. Something’s wrong here: They told me that Franklin discovered the Passage, but when I look at a map and I see that he was frozen here off King William Island and that there’s no Passage down here navigable by ships, I don’t see how he discovered the Passage. On the other hand, I see over here on the other side of the island that Rae Strait does afford the Passage and that’s the Passage through which Roald Amundsen sailed in becoming the first one to sail through the Northwest Passage. So there’s a contradiction here.

I began to explore that more and more thoroughly. I actually ended up, on this one night, jumping out of my chair. I’m a fairly histrionic individual anyway, I think it’s the French Canadian in me. But, literally, pacing around the room because I was seized by the realization that I had to abandon what I was doing. This was too important: I had a responsibility to set the record straight. That was just how it was going to be. It was that precise and dramatic in its arrival. There was that moment when I knew: OK, I’m abandoning what I’ve been pursuing — the outlines, the beginning and so forth is all history now — and I’m going to tell the right true story.


What did you abandon?

The novel that I had projected. Which was going to be a contemporary novel. A.S. Byatt wrote a novel called Possession in which you have a couple of researchers and they’re perusing a manuscript and there’s a historical backdrop to that. I was thinking along those lines. So it was the contemporary novel that I junked in order to set the record straight.


So you are, in your own way, an explorer.

I’m an explorer, but I stumbled across it. I stumbled across the story.


But the way you describe it, it seems obvious. It makes you wonder how nobody ever saw it.

It is interesting in that respect, but to shift the metaphor slightly: I feel like the kid at the parade. Everybody is talking about the emperor’s new clothes and I look up and I’m the small still voice crying: Well, the emperor is not wearing any clothes. [Laughs] Only at that point some people begin to admit: Well, yeah, I don’t see any clothes, either, but we’ve all kind of agreed that he’s wearing clothes.


Now there are all those history books to rewrite.

That’s right! [Laughs]


Is that going to happen?

I think it should happen. Maybe Fatal Passage is like a pebble in a pond and it will start to ripple outwards. Certainly I think I make the case and it has large-scale implications and ramifications for the way we view our history, undoubtedly. I mean, to me the story of Franklin is subsidiary to the story of John Rae and why have we been, for so long, virtually celebrating this disaster — incompetence and disaster — when we could be celebrating excellence and achievement. I mean, if John Rae were an American, he’d be Davy Crockett. We’d be wearing coonskin caps and there’d be a miniseries and [we’d be] singing about him. But we haven’t done that: not yet anyway. Maybe we’re due for a change. Can we accept a real Canadian hero? This was before Canada, per se, but he’s our hero. We can claim him.


Have you heard dissenting voices? Have people argued against your findings?

Yes. Well, official history will always have its doughty defenders and at least one of them has come out of the woodwork, feeling that I’m perhaps too sympathetic to the Native point of view, for one thing. And it gets extremely complicated and convoluted when you start talking about the Passage. He wrote a book a decade ago. Essentially what you’ve got is someone trying to protect his own turf.


Validate his own argument?

Right. And take a free publicity ride if at all possible. [Laughs] But I wrote a letter to the editor and offered to debate him at any time.


All of that would help your book too, I guess.

It won’t hurt it. Some people say controversy is good. I fully expect more controversy. Although I would be just as happy to go with complete and utter adulation from start to finish. Though either or is OK with me.


How many novels have you written?

Four. [At this time I was counting as two the different versions of my Kerouac novel as revised and brought out by different publishers.]


When were they published?

From 1993 to 1999.


Historical in nature?

One of them has a strong historical element. It’s called Kerouac’s Ghost. [link]. That has a historical dimension in that Kerouac died some time ago. I did do a tremendous amount of research on that, but I stuck with a fictional approach, nonetheless. That novel is narrated by the ghost of Jack Kerouac, come back from the dead and he tells the story. But it’s rooted in the reality of his life. So that would just be one step away in terms of genre. [This novel has since gone through two more incarnations.]


You didn’t actually see yourself, then, writing what is, essentially, an important work of Canadian history?

No, I didn’t. It came out of nowhere and seized me. I do see it that way. And I know that I’ve turned up a fair bit of material that the scholars have not discovered before. You know, little things. For example, Rae’s manuscript at Cambridge ends in mid-sentence at a very crucial time and nobody was able to figure out what happened and there were various theories. Well, I figured it out and I show, I think, in the book where it went and that it has been published — virtually all of it — in another work that appeared in 1875. Various things like that. There was correspondence in there that has never seen the light of day, that people didn’t know about. [For instance] the exchange between Rae and [Francis] Leopold McClintock who Lady Jane Franklin set up as the discoverer of the fate of Franklin. That’s all part of what I call the conspiracy. I trace it quite clearly: here’s the exchange between these two and Rae made this point and McClintock answered this way and nobody has seen that stuff before. My book is the first one to present this case on behalf of John Rae, there’s absolutely no question about that.


Lady Jane Franklin’s part in this is part of what makes the story so gripping. Her actions were so self-serving.

She was an incredibly ambitious woman. An incredibly talented woman. Extremely intelligent and articulate. Far more articulate than Rae himself, for example. But incredibly ambitious. And you can see this throughout her lifetime, not just in terms of her relationship with John Rae. But she was the first woman to do this, the first woman to do that. When [she and Sir John] went to Australia, she became the first woman to climb Mt. Wellington.

She was the one who sent poor old Sir John off to lead this expedition. Here’s this guy who is 59 years old — which is not old now, I must insist, but was a fair bit older in the middle of the 19th century. They didn’t have the kind of life expectancy that we have now. OK, overweight, out of shape: John, you’re going to lead this expedition. She wanted him to be the discoverer of the Northwest Passage so she would be remembered as the consort of the discoverer of the Northwest Passage. That was her vision for herself. That was, finally, having become a Lady, that would perhaps be sufficient historically for the extent of her ambition.

It wasn’t that she was evil, per se. She didn’t go after John Rae because she was a wicked woman. He got in her way and she was extremely powerful and relentless. She’s a great villain, if you look at it in terms of a narrative, that’s how I perceive her. And a wonderful character. I mean, there’s a great scene in [Fatal Passage]. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I discovered it the first time.

When they’re in Australia and Sir John Barrow sends a letter to Franklin who is [then] governor of Van Diemen’s Land, the penal colony there. Barrow is writing complaining about some treatment accorded his son in Australia. Lady Franklin was virtually running the place and people were complaining: especially in a macho society like Australia, and Franklin was the victim of petticoat domination. Anyway, Barrow writes to Franklin, Lady Franklin intercepts the letter, reads it, rushes upstairs with her niece, Sophia, chasing after her — here’s Sir John downstairs, looking for his letter — [she] hands it to Sophia and says: Burn this, Sophia! Sophia throws it into the fire, Franklin comes rushing upstairs and says: Where’s my letter? [Lady Jane] says: I burned it, John, and I would do it again. She burned it! Burned the letter from his big boss: the guy who is running the whole show. She was a real powerhouse.


There’s tremendous amount of research in Fatal Passage.

A tremendous amount in the project. Reading everything there was to read about Lady Franklin, for example. And she had the worst handwriting. Well, it wasn’t the worst handwriting, but tiny, tiny handwriting. Almost unreadable. But there’s been a lot of peripheral information gathered here and there and you just keep following it, you just keep going with it. Until finally you run out of steam, right? [Laughs] And then you let the book go.


How much time did you spend in research?

Well, three years intensive.


How long in the writing?

I’m counting the writing in that because, as I research it, I’m writing. It’s the same, on a large scale, as doing something journalistic. You’re writing along and you realize: Oh, there’s a hole in my story here, I’ve gotta find that out. So you pick up the phone and make a call or whatever. You think you’ve got all the information you need, you plunge into the chapter and you realize: OK, there’s some stuff I need to know. Then you pursue that. So it’s a back and forth kind of thing, at least in my experience.


And, in the course of the research, I know you walked some of the miles.

I had a wonderful time! I felt driven to go up to the Arctic to the spot where John Rae had made his discovery of the final link in the Passage. To me there was a metaphorical rightness to that, quite apart from anything else, that was driving me. It was an analogy, in a way, for what I was trying to do with the book. Which is, you know, fly the flag on behalf of Rae. So, with two friends, I put together a plaque. A metal plaque. And we went North and made our way to the spot where John Rae discovered the final link — a place called Point de la Guiche, looking out over what is now called Rae Strait. We found what we believe to be the remains of the cairn that he built — there was no other remains around and it was at the exact spot — so that was probably it. And that’s where we left this plaque.


I know that the plaque subsequently saved someone’s life.

Yeah, that was extraordinary. This was [1999] that we put the plaque up there and you begin to wonder: Well, is it still sitting up there? You know, the wind and the rain, it’s pretty rough country. So late in March when it’s all nice and sunny down here it’s still pretty wild and rugged up there in the High Arctic. An Inuit guy was traveling from Pelly Bay to Gjoa Haven [an Inuit settlement of about 900 on King William Island], which is a distance of several hundred miles. He would have been on a snowmobile. And a blizzard came up.

You’ve got to imagine what a blizzard is like in the Arctic: think Winnipeg and multiply it by ten. He got lost. Completely and utterly lost. And he’s looking around and he comes across this plaque that’s out there in the middle of nothing and is — as far as he knows — hundreds of miles from anywhere. So he gets out his red radio and manages to roust an RCMP station and he says: Well, I’m lost. I don’t know where the hell I am but I’ve come across this plaque here.

On the plaque we’d put our names, my name and my two friends, one of whom was Louie Kamookak who lives in Gjoa Haven. And he recognized Louie’s name and he said: Doesn’t that guy live in Gjoa Haven? And the RCMP guy said: Hang on, just sit tight there at that plaque, wherever the hell it is. And he phoned Louie and said: There’s this plaque. So Louie told him exactly where it was and the guy was then able to travel southwest 60 miles to make his way to safety. So in my view, it saved a guy’s life, already. [Laughs] The plaque is still doing its work.


Was there anything in your research that you couldn’t include in the book or didn’t include the book that you would have liked to have?

I can’t say as there is. I was able to put in everything I thought was salient. Of course, you come across all kinds of stuff. You get conflicting reports sometimes. I discovered that for the first time when I was researching Kerouac. You get out and out conflicts and then you get this lacunae and holes in the information. You’ve got one source saying a character’s name is James Hamilton and you’ve got another saying John Hamilton: you just do the best you can. But I’m still finding things out even now. Little tiny things: little bits and pieces. [Rae’s] visit to Victoria, for example, I hadn’t known before that he gave a speech and then wrote a letter to the editor. So I found that out subsequently. I imagine myself accumulating little things like that over the foreseeable future and incorporating those into — hopefully — the second and third editions. A book is never really quite finished until the author is dead and then, who knows? Maybe somebody else could finish it.


Have you been a journalist your whole career?

Until the strike at The Herald. Although it’s also true that I was a fiction writer before I was a journalist and I had a vision of surviving. [Laughs] And I realized in my early 20s: This doesn’t seem to be working. I was doing all kinds of other jobs. Everything from bicycle messenger in San Francisco to fire lookout in the Canadian Rockies. It was up there actually, I was reading a lot of Joyce. James Joyce is one of my great heroes. [While reading Joyce] the novel came back to life for me but also at that time I realized: Well, I’d better try and do something because I’m not going to be able to do this all year long. So I went to Ryerson [University] in Toronto and trained as a journalist.


When would that have been?

In the early to mid-1970s. Then I worked at The Toronto Star. And then I came [to the West Coast]. I could have stayed on at The Toronto Star and people thought I was crazy. But by then I had learned about the MFA program at [the University of British Columbia]. And I always saw myself first and foremost as a writer, so … that master’s degree seemed like a better plan to me. I left The Star and [did that MFA]. Then I went traveling through Greece and Africa and then I came back home to Montreal, I thought. I got a job at the Montreal Star, I was the assistant entertainment editor and things were grooving along and I was writing and then — boom — the Star went down. At that point we had a baby — now my 21-year-old son. He was only six months old then and I was the main breadwinner so when The Herald came looking for people they brought about a dozen of us out to Calgary, which was booming.


You’re not still at the Herald though?

No. There was a strike and I was part of it and I never went back.


So was that strike one of those happy accidents that made other things in your life start to happen?

Well, it was interesting. It was an unhappy time. I had already started on this book. The fellowship that I won to Cambridge was a fellowship for full-time journalists, called a press fellowship. So I was at the Herald, I went over there, spent my three months a Cambridge doing my research, started on the book. When I got back things had, I think, already passed the point of no return and it wasn’t for me a difficult decision in that there was no way I was ever going to cross the picket line: that’s just who I am. Although none of us ever thought that it was going to last for eight months, but it did. The advantage, for me, was that I had this major book project and I’ll tell you one thing: the book is a lot better because I had that much more time to devote to it.

Coming October 7, 2023


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