By Wayne Johnston

Reviewed by Kenn Harper


Canadian author Wayne Johnston has written a fascinating work of fiction around the lives of Frederick Cook and Robert Peary and their rival quests for the North Pole.

The story is told through the voice of Devlin Stead, a young orphan raised by his aunt and uncle in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His father, Dr. Francis Stead, had abruptly abandoned his wife and son and gone to Labrador to minister to the Inuit. Devlin had lived with his mother until her life ended in an apparent suicide. Then word reached St. John’s that Dr. Stead had gone even farther north, signing on as a doctor on Robert Peary’s first expedition to the High Arctic in 1891. The doctor died on that expedition; he wandered away from camp one night and was never seen again. In St. John’s, Devlin’s aunt doted on him even while her husband barely tolerated him; he was viewed as an oddity and an outsider by his neighbours. But his sheltered life changed forever when he received the first of a series of letters from the explorer, Frederick Cook. As more and more letters arrived, the explorer revealed that he had had a youthful dalliance with Devlin’s mother, the beautiful Amelia, and that he – and not the late Dr. Francis Stead - was in fact Devlin’s father. Cook invited Devlin to travel to New York where the two met, and the young man became the explorer’s assistant. Devlin accompanied Cook to the Arctic on the mission that Herbert Bridgman organized to rescue Peary in 1901, and the young man saved Peary’s life that summer. He also accompanied Cook on his 1907 expedition, which resulted in Cook’s claim to have reached the pole in April of 1908. On April 22 of that year, Devlin Stead became the first man to stand at the North Pole, accompanied by his father and a party of Inuit. Or so he thought.

The story deals with three of Peary’s and Cook’s real-life expeditions. On the first, in 1891, Peary traveled to northern Greenland with Cook, then 26 years old, as surgeon. His party included John Verhoeff as mineralogist and meteorologist. Verhoeff and Peary quarreled incessantly – Verhoeff apparently could not stand Peary’s authoritarian style of leadership. In July of 1892, shortly before the expedition was to return home, Verhoeff, on a boating expedition with a number of other men, set out alone to return over a glacier from the head of Bowdoin Bay to Red Cliff House and was never seen again.

In 1898 Peary returned to northern Greenland on his fifth expedition to the High Arctic. This expedition was destined to last for four years. During the first winter, Peary endured extreme physical hardship and lost a number of his toes to frostbite. The following summer, Herbert Bridgman of the Peary Arctic Club went north on the Diana on a summer voyage. Dismayed at Peary’s condition, he urged him to return south, but Peary remained, wintering at Etah, while both Diana and Windward returned south. In the summer of 1900, the Windward took Peary’s wife, Josephine, and daughter, Marie, on what was intended to be a summer voyage to visit Peary. Ice conditions prevented the vessel leaving Payer Harbour, where the party was forced to winter, while Peary wintered far to the north at Fort Conger, unaware that his wife was in Greenland. When the Windward failed to return south in the fall of 1900, Bridgman organized a relief mission for the following summer. At Bridgman’s insistence, Dr. Frederick Cook accompanied the expedition as surgeon. It was just as well. They found that relations between Peary and the expedition doctor, Thomas Dedrick, had deteriorated to the point where the two men no longer spoke with each other, although Dedrick has earlier saved Peary’s feet and probably his life. The Inuit thought both men insane. Cook examined Peary at Etah, where he found the explorer to be in very bad shape, both physically and mentally. He told Peary that the condition of his feet meant that his career as an explorer was over, and advised him to return south immediately. Peary refused – both the Windward and the Eric returned south without him - and remained in the Arctic for an additional year.

In 1907 Cook returned to the Arctic, wintering with a young German, Rudolph Franke, before embarking by sled with two Inuit for the North Pole. He and the Inuit passed the following winter in a cave at Cape Sparbo, Devon Island.

Johnston takes great liberties with the story of Cook and Peary. He declaims that his book is a work of fiction and that "at times, it places real people in imaginary space and time. At others, imaginary people in real space and time". Dr. Francis Stead is one of those imaginary people. His character and his profession as doctor appear to be modeled largely on the real-life Thomas Dedrick from the 1898-1902 expedition, although his disappearance in 1892 is modeled on that of the scientist, Verhoeff. Both Verhoeff and Dedrick evinced extreme loathing for Peary. The fictitious Devlin Stead’s role in 1907 and 1908 appears to be in part modeled on Rudolph Franke, although Franke also appears in the book.

Although the narrative begins in St. John’s, the bulk of the story is set in the Arctic and New York City. Johnston’s descriptions of the Arctic – of ice and sky and the minds of men after a winter in isolation – are compelling and convincing. He has never been to the Arctic, but in a television interview he remarked that he had lived in Newfoundland long enough to understand ice. He also understands Cook and Peary as individuals, and the controversy that has linked them forever in the public imagination. He pays meticulous attention to both the details of the expeditions and to life in turn-of-the-century New York, a city bursting with energy, and transplants the avarice and jealousies of the city onto the pristine Arctic landscape in a way that does not seem incongruous.

Peary and Henson both left progeny in the Arctic, most of whom have become avid promoters of the Peary-at-the-pole claim. There has never been any suggestion that Cook left children in the Arctic. And so it is ironic that this book’s protagonist is the illegitimate son – albeit white – of the good doctor.

The book has few apparent inaccuracies. Johnston has Cook reaching the North Pole on April 22, 1908, not the April 21st of the historical record. This must certainly be a purposeful creation rather than an error, perhaps Johnston’s way of signaling his belief, which later becomes clear, that Cook did not reach the pole at all. And he has Cook’s two Inuit companions accompanying him as far south as Upernavik on his trip out of the Arctic, although in fact they remained north of Melville Bay.

Back in New York as the Cook-Peary controversy built to a crescendo, Cook confides once again in his secret son. He reminds Devlin that at Etah in 1901, as he tended to the needs of a delirious Peary, that Peary had said to him, "I have thought it through, and I am sure it can be done." (429). Cook had thought that Peary meant that, despite all the setbacks he had endured, he still believed it possible for him to reach the North Pole. But then Peary had added, "A man who knew what he was doing could get away with it," and Cook eventually realized that what Peary meant was that it was possible for a man to fool people into thinking he had been at the North Pole. Peary’s refusal to allow Cook to rescue him, even though his health hung in the balance, was deliberate. "You must first rescue me before you can succeed me," Peary had told Cook. In the spring of 1908, Cook, without telling Devlin, had appropriated Peary’s devious plan as his own modus operandi. Only after accepting the initial accolades of the American public and the plaudits of Copenhagen did Cook finally confess his own deception to his disbelieving son. "We were never there, Devlin. We never made it to the pole," he told him. (441) He explained his earlier Mount McKinley fraud and the reasons for his false North Pole claim. But he explains far more than this to his son. In the Arctic in 1892, Francis Stead had confessed to Cook – never suspecting that Cook was the father of his wife’s son – that Amelia had not committed suicide but that he had sneaked back to St. John’s and thrown her from Signal Hill to drown in the waters at the foot of the hill. Moreover, at the end of the expedition it was his intent to return to St. John’s to kill her bastard son, then release information that would ruin both Peary and Cook. Cook had taken preemptive action, and he wanted Devlin to believe that he had done it to save the young man’s life. He had followed Stead from Red Cliff House, drugged him with laudanum, and left him to freeze to death in the crevasse of a glacier.

Thus emerges a portrait of Cook as murderer, manipulator, grasping egotist and devoted father, while Peary remains what he has long been known to be: arrogant, uncompromising, self-centred and ruthless. Through it all, Devlin Stead struggles to make sense of his own origins, and finds and loses a father.

Johnston has described this book as a work of "historical impressionism". In an Author’s Note at the end of the book, he notes, "This is a work of fiction. …. its purpose is not to answer historical questions or settle historical controversies." Prophetically, in Cook’s final confession to Devlin, and in his explanation of the North Pole fraud, he says, "Every attempt will be made to discredit me. But it will be enough for me if this controversy is never settled." (442).

The controversy, almost a century old, has not been settled and probably never will be. But Wayne Johnston has given us a startling look inside the minds of the two explorers central to the controversy through the unique medium of the son that Cook never had. Johnston is a skilled writer, author of the earlier best-seller, "The Colony of Unrequited Dreams," nominated for both the Canadian Governor General’s Award and for the Giller Prize, and winner of the Canadian Author’s Award for Fiction. The Navigator of New York was also nominated for the Giller Prize in 2002. It didn’t win, but it should have.