White Space on the Map

by Samuel McCracken
The Man Who Ate His Boots: The Tragic History of the Search for the Northwest Passage
By Anthony Brandt
Knopf, 441 pages, $28.95
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Brandt tells all this with sure narrative control and admirable clarity. He has a good instinct for character, including that of the Inuit, but particularly that of Franklin, the kindly commander who literally could not kill a mosquito; he told the astonished Inuit that the mosquito had as much right to live as he. Franklin was corpulent, genial, and brave, going back for one more try at the passage at an age when he was entitled to a peaceful retirement at Bournemouth or some other unfrozen harbor. He took 128 others with him to a death that eventually included “the last dread alternative,” which is to say cannibalism, although that happened after he had passed beyond command.

Brandt relates this astonishing account about as well as anyone is likely to, but he is not without minor fault. He is inclined to supply unneeded details about members of the British royal family, and get them wrong. He reports, for example, that the explorer William Edward Parry was much lionized by high society and was invited to dinner by Queen Victoria’s father, one Prince Leopold, and that Victoria told Parry that she had read all his books. As it happens, Victoria’s father was named Edward and had been dead for seven years at the time of the dinner; Victoria was all of eight. Prince Leopold was Victoria’s uncle — the future Leopold I of Belgium — and the Princess Victoria of Brandt’s account was not the future queen but her mother, Leopold’s sister Victoria. Brandt also persists in calling Franklin’s second wife Jane “Lady Jane”; it should be Lady Franklin.

Lately, climate change has taken a hand in the fortunes of the passage. For several years it has been open two months for cruise ships, among other vessels. This year, the season ran into September. On present trends, the passage may become all that Sir John Barrow could have wished, and having become practical, it is now a bone of contention. (Canada regards it as part of its internal waterways, as if it were the Saint Lawrence. The United States and other maritime nations beg to differ.)

Brandt is a global warming pessimist. “Perhaps by the end of this century,” he writes, “ice will have vanished from the world altogether.” If he is right, there will come a generation of readers for whom his tales of frigid heroism and folly will seem more fantasy than history.

Samuel McCracken is a critic and essayist living in Boston.

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