Monday, August 13, 2018


But for the interludes, brief but vivid, depicting the lives of the women left behind, Andrea Barrett's The Voyage of the Narwhal could be a contemporary novel from the age it depicts, the mid-19th century, when polar exploration was in vogue and a single woman's pleas and offers of financial reward could send dozens of expeditions into danger in the hope of finding some trace of her husband's lost party.

Zeke Vorhees is one of many young, well-to-do New Englanders obsessed with the fate of Sir John Franklin and his crew, lost in an earlier exploration of the Arctic Circle. As the novel opens, he has convinced his lifelong friend and future brother-in-law, Erasmus Darwin Wells (and yes, Erasmus is named for Charles Darwin's daddy, and yes, he is a naturalist of the fussing-around-in-preserved-collections sort) to abandon his repository and becoming Zeke's logistics manager for an expedition to go find more evidence of the Franklin expedition's fate.

Erasmus is our narrator here, one with a refreshing emotional intelligence we might not entirely expect from a true 19th century Man of Science (but wouldn't it be great if we could? This novel answers YES) as he resolves to pay proper attention, for once, to the staff and underlings who will make his research possible. He thus gives us portraits of all the crew of the Narwhal, from the newly-recruited young cook, Ned (only survivor of a large Irish family who fled the potato famine) to the irascible Captain Tyler to the remarkable and Dr. Maturin-esque (for you Patrick O'Brian fans) Dr. Boerhaave as they journey north, seek traces of the Franklin Expedition, encounter various Inuits (herein referred to by the 19th century term and spelling of "Esquimaux") and spend a terrible winter frozen in place when Zeke springs on them that their more important aim was always to find the fabled Northwest Passage* and nobody's going home until they try.

Interspersed with Erasmus' first-person accounts are brief looks in at the lives of Erasmus' sister Lavinia, Zeke's fiancee, and her live-in companion Alexandra, as they wait for the return of Our Heroes. Lavinia pines somewhat conventionally, but Alexandra finagles her way into an apprenticeship as an engraver and winds up helping a publishing firm frantically race to complete a lavish illustrated edition of Elisha Kent Kane's own travel reports of an expedition seeking the Franklin party.

I would gladly have read a whole book dedicated to Alexandra's story; alas, we mostly just get glimpses of this until the novel's final act.

Big thanks to my mother, by the way, who originally stumbled across this gem while looking for books for my dad, who is a hard guy to find reading material for. We still haven't gotten him to read it, by the way. Stubborn!

*It's especially interesting to read about this idea now, in 2018, when it looks more and more likely that this might actually become a reality in my lifetime thanks to climate change. D'oh.

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