||Concerning Franklin And His Gallant Crew
by Margaret Atwood
This is a condensed version of one of Margaret Atwoods 1991 Clarendon Lectures at Oxford University, delivered in April of this year.
HIS is THE FIRST of four lectures that afire roughly grouped around certain image-clusters which have appeared and reappeared in Canadian literature, and which are connected with the Canadian North. My first lecture will introduce motifs of the North associated with the disastrous Franklin expedition of the mid-19th century.
The facts, by now, are fairly well known. In May of 1845, Sir John Franklin and 135 men, including the other Arctic veterans Captain Francis Crozier and Commander James Fitzjames, sailed from England on a voyage of discovery. Their two ships were named, with horrible prescience, the Terror and the Erebus. These ships had forti-
fied hulls which were supposed to be able to withstand the tremendous pressure of pack ice; they were provisioned for three years; and they contained many extras such as hot water, steam heating, instruments for scientific research, and two libraries with a total of 2,900 volumes. For their time, they were the most technologically advanced and luxurious ships ever sent on such an expedition.
Franklin`s intent was to discover the North-West Passage, which Europeans had been trying to do without success for over 300 years. If charted, such a passage - in those days before the Panama Canal - would have made trade with China and India much faster and therefore more lucrative. The real goal of the expedition, then, was financial; but both the excited press of the time and later recountings have glorified it with other and more lofty adjectives, of the brave, heroic, gallant, daring, and selfless variety. At the time, this venture was launched with unqualified optimism: the Franklin expedition, it was felt, would run no real risks and could not possibly fail, due to the wisdom of its leaders and, especially, to the up-to-date nature of its ships and supplies.
The expedition was last sighted in Baffin Bay in July of 1845, by two whaling ships. After that the Terror and Erebus vanished, and none of their men was ever seen alive again. I say "alive;" because some of them were seen dead, under unusual circumstances.
When the expedition did not return, great efforts were made to find it. Several dozen other expeditions were sent out, and large rewards were ofered - one by Lady Jane Franklin, Sir John`s wife. In August of 1850, three graves dated the winter of 1846 were discovered on Beechey Island. They were the graves of three expedition members who must have died while still aboard ship: Braine, Hartnell, and Torrington. After that, a large cairn of discarded food tins was located - but no other clues, and no other corpses.
In 1854, the surveyor John Rae obtained second-hand news of the expeditions fate through some Native hunters, who reported that the ships had been crushed in the ice and the expedition`s men had starved to death while trying to make their way south, indulging in a little cannibalism along the way. The Inuit had picked up various items from the expedition, including some monogrammed silver spoons, which Rae was able to purchase and display as proofs. In its reporting, the Toronto Globe put a Tower of Babylon or Prometheus-the-Fire-Stealer spin on this story, turning it into a parable about overreaching yourself by foolishly trying to storm "winter`s citadel."
In May 1859, a joint expedition headed by Captain Francis McClintock and William Hobson uncovered some harder evidence. Hobson discovered a message - the only real message ever found which indicated that the ships had been deserted after having been "beset" - that is, frozen in and unable to get out - for three years, and that the men had headed south, to try to locate the Back Fish River hundreds of miles to the south. By this time Franklin himself was already dead; the truth was - according to Inuit sources anyway - that the man was always somewhat of a fool, and had on previous occasions ignored local advice and gone places he`d been told not to. Possibly that was what had happened this time; coupled with a run of unusually cold weather, it spelled calamity. Meanwhile, McClintock had located some actual bodies, grouped in and around a ship`s boat which these men had been trying to drag across land. The boat was filled with all kinds of useless junk - useless, that is, for basic survival: pocket combs, soap, slippers, toothbrushes, and a copy of The Vicar of Wakefield. The odd thing was the evidence of crazed behaviour: the boat was pointing the wrong way, and its provisioning was bizarre, to say the least. Whatever the men had been up to, it was obvious that they had not been thinking very clearly at the time.
In the early 1980s, a team of anthropologists, including the University of Alberta forensic specialist Owen Beattie and his partner James Savelle, located the three sailors` graves and carefully exhumed Torrington, Braine, and Hartnell, who had been frozen in the permafrost ever since 1846. From samples of hair and fingernails they examined, the scientists concluded that these three men had been suffering from high levels of lead poisoning at the time of their deaths. In the 1840s the art of canning food had not yet been perfected. The seams on the cans were soldered with lead - the effects of which were not understood at the time - and the lead seeped into the food. The Franklin expedition, through its reliance on "state-of-the-art" technology, had unwittingly poisoned itself. This would explain the disorientation of the men in their final days, and their apparent inability to devise and carry out the necessary survival strategies. If they`d been relying on more "primitive" methods, such as hunting and fishing, they would have stood a much better chance.
These are the bare bones - as it were - of the Franklin story. But what has the Canadian literary imagination made of it?
TS LITERARY REINVENTION began with something that is not, in origin, Canadian at all, but English - the 19th-century ballad of "Lord Franklin!`- or, in its many variations, "Lady Franklin`s
Lament" or "The Franklin Expedition:" There are several variants of these still sung in Canada, with both different words and different music. The well-known Canadian songwriter Wade Hemsworth presents one in his version of "The Franklin Expedition!` - a line from which ("Concerning Franklin and His Gallant Crew") supplies the title of this lecture ....
However, the Franklin disaster did not take root in the Canadian imagination immediately; possibly because, at the time, the whole thing - enwrapped as it was in the Union Jack and in sentiments of the most grovelling patriotism - was thought of as too British. Although the rewards offered, and the findings of physical evidence, were given big space in the Toronto Globe, on at least one occasion the same paper complained that Tom Thumb the Midget`s Toronto appearance vastly outdrew a public lecture on Franklin. But that was in the mid-19th century. By the 20th century, Canada was beginning to identify its very own nightmares, and the Franklin expedition was certainly among them.
Before getting to literary treatments of the Franklin expedition proper, I`d like to mention the body of mystic-North imagery both built up and exploited by a rum-of-the-century poet whose work is usually dismissed by serious critics - Robert W Service. Service, of Sam McGee and Dan McGrew fame, wrote a great deal of Kiplingesque verse, much of which centred around his experiences in the Yukon during the Gold Rush. He was drawing upon an already existing body of lore and cliche - some of which was based on actual travellers` tales - when he wrote poem after poem describing both the uncanny lure of the North and the awful things it could do to you, which included freezing you stiff and driving you crazy. Heres a couple of samples - the last verse of a poem called "The Land that God Forgot;` for instance:
Oh outcast land! Oh leper land! Let the lone wolf-cry express The hate insensate of thy hand, Thy heart`s abysmal loneliness.
Or, better, a snippet from "Death in the Arctic;" which is about a sole survivor wondering whether to shoot himself as he crouches in an igloo with the rest of his group, laid out in a gelid row in their sleeping bags (why he didn`t put them outside, like a sensible fellow; the poem does not say):
Oh would you know how earth can be A Hell-go north of eighty-three!
Service also has a lot of poems in which the North is endowed with beckoning voices; the title of his first collection is The Lure of the Yukon - the Yukon is a "she;` and says things like,
I am the land that listens, I am the land that broods;
Steeped in eternal beauty, crystalline waters and woods.
Long have I waited lonely, shunned as a thing accurst,
... And I wait for the men who will win me, ...
and so forth....
A real life footnote: in 1918, the painter Tom Thomson, known for his canvases of the North, was found floating face-down beside his canoe. He was an experienced woodsman, and in the habit of going off for long trips, by himself, to paint. There was no indication of how he had come to drown. But everyone knew, or thought they did: the spirit of the North had claimed him as one of its, or her, own. The death of Tom Thomson was treated as somehow legendary, somehow exemplary. Now, a lot of people in Canada fall off their kitchen stepladders and break their necks, and many others die in car crashes; and yet there is no mythology centring around these deaths, no Spirit of the Kitchen or Spirit of the Automobile that lures you on or claims you as its own. Significant deaths, like significant lives, are those we choose to find significant. Tom Thomson`s death was found significant because it fitted in with preconceived notions of what a death in the North ought to be.
To sum up: popular lore, and popular literature, established early that the North was uncanny, awe-inspiring in an almost religious way, hostile to white men, but alluring; that it would lead you on and do you in; that it would drive you crazy, and, finally, would claim you for its own.
THE FIRST CANADIAN poet I know about who was fascinated by the Franklin story was E. J. Pratt. Pratt was a Newfoundlander who specialized in narrative poems dealing with epic ventures, in which - typically - groups of men struggle against odds imposed largely by an immense and difficult and usually very cold Nature. Writing between the 1920s and the `50s, Pratt identified so many stories that were, and possibly still are, central to the Canadian literary imagination -including the building of the great railroads and the tale of the martyred French Jesuits of the 17th century - that you`d almost have to wonder what was wrong with the Franklin expedition if Pratt hadn`t been interested in it.
But, as it turns out, he was. He made a couple of attempts to write about it and he had certainly read several accounts of it, such as Henty`s North Overland with Franklin and Frank Shaw`s Famous Shipwrecks, but he felt he couldn`t undertake his planned epic poem without seeing the actual terrain for himself; and back in the `30s it wasn`t at all easy to get up to Baffin Island.
In 1933, he was on the verge of starting his major Franklin poem; but, frustrated again in his attempts to head North, he tackled instead another saga of disaster -the sinking of the Titanic. It is the contention of this lecture that, in the hands of Pratt at least, the stories are very similar; that Pratt incorporated some of his thinking about the North and the Franklin catastrophe into his "Titanic`; and that, had he written the Franklin poem instead of "Titanic;" he would have given it much the same moral twist.
Pratt, like Shakespeare, gets the "argument" out of the way at the beginning, in order to leave the decks clear for the action. (Or, rather, for the inaction; as in the case of the Franklin expedition, there isn`t a -lot for the men to do, under the circumstances, except endure, and Pratt reserves his highest heroic points for those who hold back and let others scramble into the lifeboats. To paraphrase Milton, they also serve who only stand and sink.)
As in a history play Pratt assumes that we already know the story: how the Titanic was thought to be unsinkable, how it was the most luxurious liner ever built, how, in its rash and heedless rush across the Atlantic, hoping to establish a record, it bumped into an iceberg that opened it up like a can of sardines, and how a great many people subsequently drowned, some of them behaving well, others badly.
But what to make of this? Pratt had read Thomas Hardy`s treatment of the Titanic "The Convergence of the Twain"- with interest; but, in theory anyway, he repudiated Hardy`s fatalistic vision. The Titanic disaster was not a case of the Great Ironist arranging a predestined meeting between ship and iceberg, but of man`s overweening arrogance.
The second section of the poem, which deals with the Titanic as engineering wonder, is a small hymn by man to himself, modelled on the press clippings of the time - and with Prates commentary on it added at the end.
Completed! Waiting for her trial spin, Levers and telegraphs and valves within Her intercostal spaces ready to start The power pulsing through her lungs and heart.
No stone could hurt that hull - the papers said so.
The perfect ship at last- the first unsinkable,
Pawed in advance - had not the folders read so?
Such was the steel strength of her double floors
Along the whole length of the keel, and such
The fine adjustment of the bulkhead doors
That in collision with iceberg or rock
Or passing ship she could survive the shock,
And this belief had reached its climax when Through wireless waves as yet unstaled by use, The wonder of the ether had begun To fold the heavens up and reinduce That ancient hubris in the dreams of men, Which would have slam the cattle of the sun, And filched the lightnings from the fist of Zeus.
In one comer, then, the ship, a sort of 20th-century Frankenstein creation notice it has a heart and lungs - composed of equal parts technology and hubris. In the other comer, the iceberg: a little bit of that cold white mystic North that will claim you for its own. Here`s Prates description, following from the birth of the iceberg in Greenland and its journey south to Labrador:
Pressure and glacial time had stratified
The berg to the consistency of flint,
And kept inviolate, through clash of tide
And gale, facade and columns, with their hint
Of inward altars and of steepled bells ....
What`s underneath? Those who have followed the Nature-as-metaphor battle that raged throughout the 19th century - in which Wordsworthian good-mother imagery wrestled with Darwinian bad-mother imagery, and, by and large, lost and especially those steeped in, say Rider Haggard`s She and Brain Stoker`s account of Lucy`s metamorphosis
from bride to vampire in Dracula, will know better than to trust anything wrapped in white. Here`s what Pratt does:
Another month, and nothing but the brute And Paleolithic outline of a face Fronted the transatlantic shipping route. A sloping spur chat tapered to a claw And lying twenty feet below, had made It lurch and shamble like a plantigrade; But with an impulse governed by the raw Mechanics of its birth, it drifted where Ambushed, fog-grey, it stumbled on its lair.
The iceberg, of course, is not alive, not really. But Pratt renders it as semi-alive, a sort of Night of the Living Dead zombie, complete with a face, a claw, a lair, and an "impulse." Pratt tried to avoid Hardyesque predestination, but, as his biographer David Pitt says, "the more facts he unearthed,... the more `incredible,"bizarre,"grotesque,"ironic,` and `macabre did they appear ...." Pratt himself commented that it was "as if some power with intelligence and resource had organized and directed a conspiracy:" These are the intuitions he seems to have
incorporated into the shambling, semi-alive, Paleolithic figure of the iceberg itself - that chunk of the malignant North. Pratt doesn`t say what gender it is, but we get a hint after the ship has gone down, with 1,400 people still aboard it and the band still playing. Here are the last lines of the poem:
And out there in the starlight, with no trace Upon it of its deed but the last wave From the Titanic fretting at its base, Silent, composed, ringed by its icy broods, The grey shape with the Paleolithic face Was still the master of the longitudes.
That phrase "ringed by its icy broods," so closely connected with hens and chicks, pushes the berg in the direction of the female. It might be argued that the word "master" pushes it back towards neuter; but surely five words and an end-rhyme count for more, and, anyway, the full weight of the Service tradition hangs in the balance.
THE FIRST FULL-FLEDGED literary - as opposed to historical - treatment of the Franklin expedition proper that I know about is an astonishing verse drama called Terror and Erebus, written by the poet Gwendolyn MacEwen, then in her early 20s, and initially broadcast on the CBC around 1963. Complete with electronic music and icy sound effects, it was a hair-raiser.
Had Gwendolyn MacEwen read Robert Service? Had she read Pratt`s "Titanic`? The only full-length study of her work that I know of does not say. But everybody of our generation knew some Service, and Pratt was taught in high school, and MacEwen was an avid reader. However that may be, she power-packs her play with a good deal of imagery that you will not, by now, find totally unfamiliar.
The speakers in the play are Franklin himself, Crozier, the explorer Rasmussen speaking almost a hundred years after the Franklin expedition itself and after the Northwest Passage had indeed been discovered - and an Inuit character called Qaqortingnek. The story, line is book ended by Rasmussen`s commentary, and also by a sort of postscript spoken by Qaqortingnek; but the main narration is by Franklin and Crozier, and follows the historic expedition fairly closely:
the three years in the ice, the sickness among the men, the death of Franklin, the abandonment of the ships, and the attempt at an overland march to the south. The language of Terror and Erebus is organized around several groups of metaphors, all having to do with the effect of the North itself upon the human body and imagination. One group uses metaphors of religion, and is introduced by Rasmussen, who says:
So I`ve followed you here
Like a dozen others, looking for relics of your ships, your men.
Here to this awful monastery where you, where Crozier died, and all the men with you died,
Seeking a passage from imagination to reality,
Seeking a passage from land to land by sea.
Now in the arctic night
I can almost suppose you did not die,
But are somewhere walking between
The icons of ice, pensively like a priest,
Wrapped in the cold holiness of snow ....
Here we have "relics;" "awful monastery,"-"icons," "priest," and the "cold holiness of snob` all in a mere dozen lines or so. There`s a question which isn`t asked but is implicit - given these metaphors, what god presides here, or is being worshipped? The second group of metaphors has to do with madness. When Rasmussen first mentions finding the bodies and bones of the lost men, he compares them to "shattered compasses, like sciences / Gone mad." Franklin himself speaks of the strait where they are trapped as a "white asylum;` and continues:
The ice clamps and will not open,
For a year it has not opened,
Though we bash against it
Like lunatics at padded walls.
If the men on the overland march stop, they will "freeze like catatonics / In our static houses of bone." Part of this imagery of insanity has to do with the collapse of science under circumstances in which rationality and objectivity cease to have meaning because they have become useless. As Rasmussen says, "The ice / Is its own argument;` and the men leave all their measuring implements strewn behind them: "...compasses, tins, tools, all of them. / Now we come to the end of science:" But part of it is traditional: going mad is what you do
in the North.
The third group of images is sexual, but sexual in a very sinister way: the ships are wombs, leaving them is a forced birth, the "giant virginal strait of Victoria` is depicted as holding the men "Crushed forever in her stubborn loins, / her horrible house, / her white asylum in an ugly marriage." This last passage is the only personification of geography in the entire poem, and it`s noteworthy that the figure conjured up is giant, female, icy, connected with madness, and destructive: a sort of Nature white in tooth and claw. As they die, suffering from famine, insanity, exposure, and snow blindness (they don`t even have the sense to adapt Eskimo-style wooden snow goggles),the men pray to the standard Christian God, but their prayers are
prayers of despair; the implication is that they`re talking to the wrong God here.
When Qaqortingnek speaks, however, there is none of this sort of language: no madness, no religious metaphors, no sinister sexuality. Qaqortingnek`s speech is a simple account of how his ancestors, while out hunting seals, found the ice-locked ships, went inside them, discovered some very dead people in there, and bored holes in the sides of the ships to let the light in, causing the ships to sink. (This last detail is fairly implausible - Inuit people are not so dumb about boats, and would know that if you make a hole in one it is likely to have adverse effects upon the boat. Also, the ships were copperhulled; boring holes in them would not have been work for an idle afternoon. But MacEwen obviously felt a poetic need for this passage: the ships of death with their cargo of corpses - placed there by MacEwen herself, not by the historical record - settling down under the icy water. My own theory is that these ships sink in MacEwen`s poem because the Titantic sank in Pratt`s, and she just had to get those ships down to the bottom of the sea somehow, because it was so obviously - poetically - the right place for them. But I have no way of proving it.)
It`s Rasmussen who has the last word, however. At the beginning of the drama, he says to Franklin:
The earth insists There is but one geography, but then There is another still The complex, noshed geography of men. You carried all maps within you; Land masses moved in relation to you As though you created the Passage By willing it to be.
Ah, Franklin! To follow you one does not need geography . ...The eye creates the horizon, The ear invents the wind, The hand reaching out from a parka sleeve By touch demands chat the couched thing be.
And at the end, Rasmussen returns to this point of view:
Now the great passage is open, The one you dreamed of, Franklin, And great white ships pass through it Over and over again, Packed with cargo and carefree men. It is as though no-one had to prove it because the passage was always there. Or...is it that the way was invented, Franklin? that you cracked the passage open With the forces of sheer certainty?
Here is the "heroic` version of Franklin, with a vengeance Franklin blasting his way through geology by thought-rays alone. This point of view - that the imagination and the will invent reality - has a corollary: if it was a success of the imagination that "created" the Passage, it was a failure of the imagination that created the failure of the expedition itself. In simple terms: if you don`t think right about the North, the ice-god - or goddess - will get you.
After MacEwen`s verse-play, something happened in the real world that tended to undercut the heroic version of Franklin: air travel became common, and a lot of the flights went right over the Northwest Passage area, where so many had died - viewed from an airplane vantage-point - like ants. My next glimpse of Franklin is in a short 1967 poem by Al Purdy, spoken from inside a jumbo jet, and called - no surprise - "The North West Passage:" It ends this way:
The North West Passage is found And poor old Lady Franklin well she doesn`t t answer the phone tho once she traded her tears for ships to scour the Arctic seas for her husband but the Terror and Erebus sank long ago and it`s still half an hour before dinner and there isn`t much to do but write letters and I cant think of anything more to say about the North West Passage but I`ll chink of something maybe a break-thru to strawberries and ice cream for dinner
After such a diminuendo, what resurrection is possible? Quite a few, as it happens. You cant keep a good myth down, and Franklin keeps popping up in unexpected places. For instance, the original ballad makes an appearance in Graeme Gibson`s 1982 novel, Perpetual Modern, which is set in 19th-century Ontario. The protagonist of this novel is an obsessive named Robert Fraser, devoted to technological progress, which in him takes the form of a desire to build a perpetual motion machine; so devoted, in fact, that he is willing to destroy nature itself in order to do it. But it`s not Robert Fraser who sings the Franklin ballad: it`s his son, Angus, who rebels against his father and, shortly after singing the Franklin song, and sickened by the slaughter of the passenger-pigeons from which his father is making the money to finance his infernal machine, runs away and rums into a crazed wild man in the forest; becoming "lost" himself, and taking, as it were, the side of Nature in the conflict between Nature and technology. Or being taken by Nature, claimed as one of her own. Here`s the passage:
...Angus interrupts with a drawn-out note, a phrase that becomes the song, a lament for the Erebus and the Terror, for Lord Franklin, beloved Franklin in the Frozen Ocean, for gallant seamen drifting like flowers beneath mountains of ice.
Again, as in MacEwen, there`s a curious insistence on placing the lost Franklin expedition down or under. "Drifting" would certainly suggest that the sailors are drowned, are underneath the Arctic ice floes; yet, from all the evidence, they died on land. And "flowers" suggests something still more or less alive, or at least fresh-frozen. Gibson does not say dead flowers. I suspect that, again, the Franklin story and the Titanic story have interpenetrated one another. It was the Titanic that went down with a cargo of the living, not the Terror and the Erebus.
Or perhaps this dislocation has something to do with the tendency of Canadian literature to locate the oracular voice, not in a cave or on top of a mountain or in a church or temple, but under the water - or, to cite the title of a book by the poet Alden Nowlan, Under the Ice. Did English-Canadian literature inherit this tendency from Tennyson`s "In Memoriam," haunted by drowned Arthur Henry Hallam? Or does it have a real life basis - does it have to do with the amount of water in and around Canada, and the numbers of people who seem incapable of keeping their heads above it? Or have the Titanic, the Franklin expedition, and the Victorian predilection for drowned poets all made their contribution? I don`t know. I do know that I have always been baffled by Duncan Campbell Scott`s "The Piper of Arll," in which a whole crew that appears to have something to do with Art sinks to the bottom of the sea, without even any holes being bored in the ship; and I have been equally intrigued by the end of A. M. Klein`s long poem, "Portrait of the Poet as Landscape;` in which the prophetic poet "shines / like phosphorus. At the bottom of the sea:" Why there? Because, apparently, that`s where Klein felt it appropriate to place him.
But this is poetry. The Franklin story is capable also of inspiring anti poetry, or at least anti-heroics. The very latest writer to have a go at Franklin is Mordecai Richler, in his most recent novel, Solomon Gursky Was Here. Solomon Gursky is a big, sprawling novel that is mostly, ostensibly, sort of, about the unconventional behaviour of a very rich Jewish family of ex -bootleggers in and around Montreal, but it is about many other things as well. Richter has always been a parodist as well as a satirist, and one of the many things Solomon Gursky
delivers is an outrageous parody of the Franklin story.
Richter has done his homework. He has delved into the files of The Beaver, which, it should be explained, is the venerable publication on the North put out by the Hudson`s Bay Company. And, yes, he knows his ballads. There, at the beginning of Chapter Six, is the last verse of the 19th-century ballad "The Franklin Expedition!` (anon) ....
After this tip of the hat to tradition and pathos, Richter goes to town. He recounts the provisioning of the expedition - "thousands of cans filled with preserved meat," and so forth - but he smuggles in some foodstuffs - and a couple of extra seamen - of his own:
And then on the dark night before they sailed out of Stomness Harbour, in the Orkneys, their last home port, there was the curious case of the assistant surgeon of the Erebus boarding with a cabin boy wearing a silk top hat, the two of them lugging sacks of personal provisions. Six coils of stuffed derma, four dozen kosher salamis, a keg of schmaltz herring and uncounted jars of chicken fat...
The expedition duly vanishes, and Richter then recounts the search for it - the efforts of Rae and McClintock - and the finding of the longboat with its corpses and its useless provisions scattered around it. But he appends, slyly, a jar of chicken fat. And to the souvenirs collected and brought back to England, he adds "a black satin skullcap with curious symbols embroidered on it:" Some of the stupider English - the English are quite stupid in this book - ascribe this to an Eskimo shaman. One of Richter`s 20th-century Jewish characters proposes to his historical society that possibly this yarmulke - for this is what it is - is proof that several Jews embarked with the Franklin expedition, but he is pooh-poohed; upon which he announces that, according to "understandably unpublished accounts; the items found on Beechey Island included "a filigreed black suspender belt, several pairs of frothy garters, some silk panties, three corsets, two female wigs, and four diaphanous petticoats:" Funny, though anachronistic. But the historical association does not laugh, and there are fisticuffs over whether or not the Franklin expedition included Jews.
Richler settles the matter by creating a team of archeologists, who, in 1969, dig up one of the buried seamen. This man, supposedly the ship`s doctor, turns out to have been buried not only in a prayer shawl, but with a bunch of spurious recommendations and a phoney medical degree.
This is the dead Jew. The other one - the cabin boy - gets away, and turns out to be Ephraim Gursky, grandfather of the Solomon of the title, and embodiment of every Robert W Service man-of-the-North cliche in the book, plus a few outrages Richler has added on.
Solomon Gursky is Richter`s most "Canadian" book. In his own left-handed way, it`s a reclamation of his native territory. In many of his other books, the movement is in the opposite direction: his protagonists can hardly wait to get out of Canada. But Moses is willing to commit physical injury in order to get in, and getting in means getting into the mythology. "Solomon Gursky Was Here" is like "Kilroy Was Here`: Kilroy never existed, but, during the war, he was here, there, and everywhere; and so it is with the Gurskys. If there has not hitherto been room for them in such solemn tales as the Franklin expedition, Richter will jolly well make room for them, even if he has to do it by travesty Especially if he has to do it by travesty, because travesty is his preferred mode. The Richter version of Franklin is amusing enough by itself, but when read in context against the reverential Canadian literary treatments of Franklin - it`s like a fart in church: hilarious but, well, sacrilegious. As Richter intends.
Even as we speak, another major Canadian novelist is writing about the Franklin expedition; though I`ve been forbidden to say who it is. But now I`d like to go back a little in time, and end by referring to another song: this time not a traditional folk song, but one written by the Canadian singer Stan Rogers. It`s called "The North West Passage; and its worth noting that Stan Rogers died in pure Titanic style, in an airplane fire during which he stood aside and helped others to escape. His song too is a kind of reclamation, of the spirit of earlier exploration, seen in its heroic aspect. Like MacEwen`s Rasmussen, he speaks from the vantage point of one for whom the puzzle has been solved and the way made easy; but it`s been solved by the dead explorers, who are somehow there, incarnate in the routes they helped to trace. Here "the hand of Franklin" is still active, still "reaching ...through a land so wide and savage;` seeking "a North West Passage to the sea:"
Make no mistake about it: Franklin lives.