The Ice Child

By Elizabeth McGregor

NY: Dutton Books


Reviewed by Russell A. Potter


The past two decades have witnessed a plethora of fictional narratives based in some way on the unknown fate of Sir John Franklin's 1845 Arctic expedition. Ranging in tone from the tragic (Sten Nadolny's The Discovery of Slowness) to the comic (Mordecai Richler's Solomon Gursky was Here) to the postmodern (William T. Vollmann's The Rifles), they have all seized upon the enigmatic and tragic aspects of Franklin's fate, though in very different ways.

McGregor's book, for better or worse, has no such grand ambitions. Franklin's voyage is no more than an ingredient in an ungainly series of historical juxtapositions, all jumbled about in the author's personal blender like so much ice and tequila. The predominant flavor is one of breathless romance, but a romance is so thinly attenuated between sundry poles that it ultimately stretches beyond its breaking point.

Jo Harper is a young reporter for a fictional present-day British newspaper; in a development surprising only to herself, she falls in love with Doug Marshall, a "legendary" Arctic explorer whose disappearance and discovery she has been assigned to cover. Marshall, the classic silent polar type, has more or less abandoned his wife and son in his restless efforts to, among other things, solve the mystery of Franklin's disappearance, but after falling for Jo, he becomes suddenly sensitive and thoughtful. Jo, for her part, takes up an avid interest in Franklin ('how rare for a woman,' Marshall remarks), and spends hours studying his relics at the "Exploration Academy" (a rather thinly-veiled fictional version of the Scott Polar Research Institute).

Meanwhile John, the explorer's estranged and troubled son, starts his own Arctic romance with a young Inuk studying at Cambridge, Catherine Takkiruq. When we read of Catherine's "rope" of "raven" hair we realize that we are treading in the footsteps of every native stereotype from Hanta Yo to Dances With Wolves -- too bad, since her character could have provided a healthy correlative of reality against the incipient Polar romance which sweeps every other character off their feet. Alas, John Marshall's way of getting back at Dad is to try to outdo him at his own exploring game, a ploy which almost works until that tragic moment when a car passing a lorry on an ice-slicked road ends his father's life. And yet he lives -- for lo, Jo Harper has borne unto him a (posthumous) son, much to the irritation of Doug's not quite yet "ex-" wife.

Much to this reviewer's relief, this insipid and scarcely believable plot alternates with a far more interesting -- and better-written -- yarn, the tale of young Augustus Peterman, a cabin boy on board HMS Terror on Franklin's fateful voyage. Cabin boys of Franklin have their own history -- certainly they are attractive tragic figures -- which has earned them a special niche in the history of Franklin fictions. Young Augustus, despite his unfortunate nickname "Gus," can swab the decks with the best of them; the scene where John Torrington, who has befriended the young lad, slowly sickens and dies, is very poignantly told, and has a psychological depth utterly absent in the contemporary portions of the novel. Indeed, taking just these parts of the story, one gets the sense that Ms. McGregor could have written a first-rate historical novel.

Unfortunately for the reader, Ms. McGregor cannot resist stuffing still more stories into this already overstuffed suitcase -- both the Victorian and contemporary threads are periodically interrupted by a series of small vignettes about a polar bear and her cub, the reeking sentimentality of which ought to offend anyone who really cares about these magnificent animals. Would that a thoughtful editor had advised the author to save these scenes for when the Friars Club decides to roast Marlin Perkins -- there's untapped comic potential in every one of them.

The desire to wring yet more drama out of scenes that, quietly told, would have more than ample internal tension, drives the latter half of the book into disaster just as readily as Franklin ramming his ships into the heavy sea-ice of Victoria Strait. Little Sam, the offspring of Jo and Doug's brief relationship, turns out to have a rare blood disease, one which can only be treated by locating someone with a bone marrow match. John Marshall, Sam's half-brother, looks to be the only viable donor, but where is he? The ex-wife won't tell, and the raven-haired Inuk girl can do little more than phone up her relatives, asking them if they've seen any strange qaluunat lately. Finally, in a scene whose soap-operatic tension is almost too much to bear, Jo confronts Doug Marshall's ex, and she tearfully drops by a day later with the vital information as to John's whereabouts -- he is, of course, out digging for Franklin bones, but is quickly found and flown back to London for the life-saving operation.

The ostensibly 'parallel' part of the Franklin story, where the ships are caught in heavy ice and eventually abandoned, is no less overwritten; the argument between Crozier and Franklin over which way to sail around King William Land is so overblown that it destroys the credibility of later, more thoughtfully-sketched scenes. Those with an interest in the Franklin saga may scratch their heads at the implausibly sudden deaths of almost all the senior officers (Gore dies even before he returns to the ships in 1847, so his promotion to Commander must be supposed to be posthumous), until reading later in the Author's note that McGregor has read Scott Cookman's Ice Blink, and taken its fantasy as the fact upon which to found further fictions.

The author seems to have done her research in a hurry, and it may be a telling sign that her main character gets most of her information about Franklin from the Internet. Which is not to say that there isn't some very solid material available -- the Franklin Trail website is thanked explicitly, and the unnamed website at an "American University" manned by "Franklin obsessives" sounds oddly familiar! But having her famous Arctic explorer refer to Inuits, apparently unaware that Inuit is already plural, hardly gives one much confidence in Ms. McGregor's larger historical surmises.

All of which is not to say that The Ice Child is without its pleasures. On a hot summer's day at the beach, it would be quite as good a book as any with which to pass the time, and the historical connections add a nifty ingredient to the conventions of the romance novel which Ms. McGregor plies so adroitly. But considering the rich tradition of Franklin and other Arctic fictions, the reader in search of a book which truly speaks to these histories would be much better off picking up John Wilson's North with Franklin, or Andrea Barrett's Voyage of the Narwhal, either one of which will take them on a far more thought-provoking voyage.