The Broken Lands: A Novel of Arctic Disaster

by Robert Edric

New York: Thomas Dunne Books / St. Martin's Press


Reviewed by Russell A. Potter


The past two decades have seen a remarkable number of fictions based in some way upon the mystery of Sir John Franklin's last, lost Arctic expedition, ranging across almost every imaginable genre. We have had Franklin as colonialist oppressor (Wiebe's Discovery of Strangers), Franklin the Slow (Nadolny's Discovery of Slowness), postmodern Franklin (Vollmann's The Rifles), and Sci-fi Franklin (Hopkins' Cold at Heart); last year we even experienced Daytime Drama Franklin (MacGregor's The Ice Child). Edric's book, though known to readers in the UK since its original publication in 1992, has for some inexplicable reason taken ten years to reach American shores. It's a shame, because it is by far the most historically grounded of all Franklin fictions -- perhaps, like the editors who transmuted J.K. Rowling's Philosopher's Stone into Sorcerer's Stone, it's because editors assume that readers in North America are clueless when it comes to history -- even their own.

Throughout the book, it's clear that Edric has done his homework. The fittings, equipment, and interior architecture of Franklin's vessels, the Erebus and Terror, are described and referenced with the familiarity of an old tar, as are the sailing orders and daily rituals of life aboard ship. Readers who crave the taste of salt and canvas, and who may have wondered why Patrick O'Brian never got around to an Arctic tale, will be amply rewarded by Edric's vivid and richly detailed work. The character of the officers and men is true to what we know of them, and yet new; the sullen, often gloomy Crozier, the devoutly optimistic Franklin, and the charismatic young Fitzjames are joined by a cast of lesser-known characters who fill every nook and cranny of the heavily-laden ships. The shifts in the emotional timbre of the voyage are signalled through changes in the richly metaphorical landscape, in which the sublime power of the relentless ice reigns ultimately supreme. Reid, the Ice-master aboard the Erebus, at times almost threatens to supplant Franklin as the man upon whose knowledge and intuition the fate of the entire enterprise hangs.

The events are based -- though in places, rather loosely -- on what we actually do know about Franklin's last expedition: that in their first season they rounded Cornwallis Land, proving it to be an island and reaching 76 degrees of latitude; that they spent their first winter on Beechey Island, and there buried three of their number: Torrington, Hartnell, and Braine, whose faces we all know a bit too well today. That they then sailed south by means of Peel Sound, and were ultimately trapped in heavy pack ice off King William Land, where in June of 1847 Sir John Franklin died; that the ships were abandoned in April of 1848 and that there were no known survivors. Edric fleshes out these bones with narratives that are both plausible and surprising, and his descriptions of the difficult maneuvering of ships through varied ice conditions are as gripping as the pack itself. His description of a lengthy sledge journey led by Fitzjames -- unattested to in any record, but well within the likely circuit of such undertakings -- is particularly vivid, as its hardships starkly foreshadow far worse things to come. It's amazing to reflect how a few frostbitten fingers and toes, combined with the effects of hard hauling and the lack of fresh meat, are enough to push hardened sailors to the point of deadly exhaustion.

Yet despite the rich and varied human and physical landscapes in Edric's vivid and haunting novel, there are some moments which ring false -- even to those with little detailed knowledge of such expeditions. It is widely known, for instance, that the Inuit of the Eastern Arctic dwelt in snow igloos during the winter and skin tupiqs during the summer -- but Edric has them spending the winter in portable shelters made of whalebone. That the Inuit very seldom cook the flesh of sea mammals, and that in any case the Netsilingmiut whom Fitzjames is supposed to have encountered did not possess either iron pots or ample supplies of fuel, seems lost on Edric, who has his Eskimos busy rendering seal-oil in three large kettles over a fire large enough to attract Fitzjames's men even from a great distance. These and numerous other more minor errors make it clear that Edric's research did not extend very far into Inuit culture and history; his natives, unlike Franklin and his crews, are stock figures, Hollywood extras recruited for their scenic value.

The officers, ultimately, are the central figures in Edric's tale; they are the ones whose judgment is most needed, whose change in demeanor most excites the reader's sympathies. Edric perfectly captures the easygoing familiarity and friendship between the officers which is hinted at in surviving documents such as Fitzjames's journal, and he even invents projects for them which seem completely telling and in character. Gore, for instance, takes up a particular passion for the daguerreotype apparatus sent with the ships, and eventually embarks on an ambitious plan to create "the first wholly photographic panorama of the Arctic, similar to those he had visited in London prior to their departure." Although Gore's supposed model, one "Brownlow's Polar Panorama," is fictitious, such shows were indeed quite common in the mid-nineteenth century, and Gore's fascination with their possibilities suits perfectly a man who apparently was an enthusiastic amateur in both the arts and sciences. Together with Goodsir, the assistant surgeon aboard the Erebus, Gore founds a journal, the Holystoner's Almanac, which again, despite its odd title, is a perfect mirror of the sorts of shipboard newspapers and journals produced by other Arctic crews to help pass the long winter nights.

Such whimsical touches soon give way to sterner tests of character; the decline and death of Franklin brings Crozier into command, and his character as imagined by Edric is considerably more rigid and dour than the historical record suggests, though it is certainly within the creative latitude of a novelist. In Edric's version, the Terror eventually becomes so badly damaged that it is first abandoned, and later used as a storehouse for the corpses of dead sailors before being finally swallowed by the ice. Solomon Tozer, a Royal Marine with an apparent grudge against Crozier, eventually leads a renegade band from the Erebus out to an icy camp some distance from the remaining ship, while the shipless Fitzjames finds himself with increasingly less authority under an authoritarian Crozier. The plan to abandon ship and head south to the Great Fish River is represented by Edric as being Crozier's obsession, and its failure something Fitzjames foresaw. The narrative remains with Fitzjames, however, and Crozier returns only in the form of a few relics brought back to the ship by another band of Inuit hunters.

These scenes are intermingled with the death-narratives of many an officer and sailor: they become weak, their limbs discolored, incontinent in their bunks, raving and delusional, and -- in the end -- blind, deaf and mutely incapable of expressing the depth of their own agony. Their corpses, cleaned and given a fresh suit of clothes, form a kind of horrible procession, as the ships' surgeons themselves are ultimately overwhelmed, and the energy and materials required to coffin and grave the dead grow steadily more inadequate for the task. Edric spares no details, and those who have read the accounts of Arctic explorers of this era will recognize the loosening teeth, the emergent sores, and taut sinews of incipient scurvy. On the question of lead-poisoning, Edric appears noncommittal, though he actually has it that the supply of cayenne pepper provided to the ships was adulterated with red lead - a thing which, if true, would have greatly hurried on the symptoms of advanced lead psychosis.

The only flaws in the historical picture Edric draws are in the details; those intimately familiar with the known disposition of the crews of Franklin's ships will be frustrated by the many small inconsistencies, and wonder why some parts of the historical record were felt to be disposable, given the dearth of facts in general. Graham Gore, for instance, is represented as alive and healthy at a point when the written record indicates that he had died, whereas Lieutenant Irving dies two full weeks before date when the Victory Point record mentions his having searched there for Ross's cairn. Officers are depicted pulling the sledges, an unlikely event save in the last, desperate extremity, and the breakdown in naval discipline which appears early and grows worse seems rather more severe than the orderly madness to which the Franklin relics testify. Edric, for instance, has Crozier hoarding up all the silver plate, whereas the numerous surviving examples of forks and spoons with crewmembers' initials scratched onto the handles suggest that it was divided and shared out among all survivors. Still, the psychological realism of the gradual, inexorable decline of a gallant into a skeleton crew is wonderfully, terribly handled.

The hardcore Franklinites will no doubt find other flaws with this novel, but readers with a general acquaintance with the nature of Arctic exploration at this date, along with a desire to imagine how Franklin's men faced the long, drawn-out tragedy of their demise, will find themselves enmeshed in a finely-wrought and psychologically taut narrative, one which spares not the squeamish, but rewards the persevering with a deeply resonant and satisfying vision of the great and noble failure which was Franklin's.