North With Franklin: The Lost Journals of James Fitzjames

by John Wilson

Fitzhenry and Whiteside, hardcover, $22.05

reviewed by: Russell A. Potter

In May of 1845, just before their departure on what was to be the most disastrous Arctic Expedition of all time, the officers of Her Majesty's Ships "Erebus" and "Terror" did something entirely unprecedented: they sat for photographic portraits. The Daguerreotype process was only a few years old, and a certain Mr. Beard, the first licensed daguerreotypist in England, was to be their photographer. Beard's apparatus included a further novelty; by means of a mirror, his camera made two sequential exposures of each sitter. Most of the officers gallantly struck the same pose twice, and it's hard to know which is which; not so James Fitzjames. Fitzjames, Sir John Franklin's first officer aboard the "Erebus," sat soberly for the first of his two pictures, holding a telescope in his hand -- but for the second image, he set the instrument aside, and the slightest of smiles crept across his face.

It is this smile, this sense of high spirits even in the face of the most adverse circumstances, that has made Fitzjames perhaps the most compelling character in the story of the Franklin disaster, excepting only Franklin himself. For Beard's daguerreotype was not all that he left us; in a packet posted back to England from Greenland along with the last letters of the ship's crews, Fitzjames enclosed a series of letters to his adoptive brother's wife, in which he gave wry and animated portraits of all his fellow officers, and a day-by-day account of the expedition up to that time. It is these letters, first known when they were published in a nautical journal after public concern over the fate of Franklin had mounted to a fervent pitch, that form the basis for John Wilson's enigmatic and elegiac new novel, North With Franklin.

Wilson's, however, is no mere historical facsimile, but a richly re-imagined fable which goes far beyond anything the historical record alone might suggest, though it is carefully researched and never discordant with the glimmers history has left us. Wilson's Fitzjames expresses in words the kind of meditative interiority that the historical Fitzjames displayed, if at all, only in the glint in the back of his eye. Like all narrators of nautical adventures from the Old English Seafarer to Melville's Ishmael, Fitzjames manages to express the varied landscapes of a human spirit via an account of the landscape of sea, though in his case the sea is frozen. The drama of daily life aboard ship, and of the larger struggle against the vagaries of ice and human error, is told in the manner of a daily log, though punctuated (as Fitzjames's actual journal was) with witty asides and personal reflections.

If there is a danger to this sort of writing, it is that the pedestrian flow of events aboard ship, and the historical details which give that life its flavor, can lead to monotony -- a realistic enough result, as most such expeditions were comprised of routines, the more so when the ship is icebound ten months out of the year. But this is a danger that Wilson largely avoids, mainly because his Fitzjames is writing not to an expectant public at home, but to a dear sister-in-law whose implicit interest in Fitzjames's doings is far more personal. We do not so much hear as overhear his voice, and like some future explorer coming upon a frozen cache of letters, we bring our own sense of elegy to a correspondence that we know in advance cannot have ended happily.

In the process, Wilson necessarily constructs his own interpretation of the final years of the Franklin expedition, staying within what is generally plausible while feeling free to create events which match, sometimes in unexpected ways, the fragmentary evidence which has survived. We get to see Fitzjames as the man behind several strategic decisions which, without his voice, might well have gone otherwise. Francis Crozier, the Captain of the HMS Terror and after Franklin's death Fitzjames's only supernumerary, comes off poorly; he seems a melancholic and bitter soul. Fitzjames, in contrast, remains optimistic throughout; in the worst of circumstances, he jokes about the slim rations and chats encouragingly with his cabin boy.

The cabin boy, or at least one of his mates, we have met before, in Wilson's previous Franklin novel. Written for a young-adult audience, Across Frozen Seas interweaves the tale of one of Franklin's cabin boys with that of a twentieth-century boy who follows his progress in his dreams. Yet perhaps because of the limitations of that genre, Across Frozen Seas never quite rises to the occasion as does North With Franklin; this is a novel for grown-ups, for those of us who can imagine the gradual and inexorable sense of defeat that creeps upon a spirited individual who might well have deserved better, but who nevertheless does not permit the indulgence of regrets.

North With Franklin is also a very handsomely produced book; its narrow pages are decorated with engraved motifs from a nineteenth-century text on the Arctic, and the typesetting and quality of paper give it the feel of a far older book. Years ago, in a stack of old volumes retrieved from my great-grandfather's library, I came upon Kane's Arctic Explorations, and read it through with a growing sense of the strange and faded world from which it spoke; Wilson's novel speaks in that same tone. It is, itself, a kind of affectionate letter, though for a man who has been dead a hundred and fifty years and more. For readers of historical fiction who yearn to sojourn in those "regions of thick-ribb'd ice" there could be few better companions than Wilson's James Fitzjames.

An Interview with John Wilson

When/why did you first become aware of the Franklin saga?

I first heard of Franklin in the 50s and 60s when he was the subject of the boys adventure stories I read in Britain at that time. Owen Beattie and the lead poisoning theory brought him back to my attention in the 80s and Dave Woodman's books on the Inuit testimony gave me some ideas for building a story around the facts.

When did you first conceive of writing a novel about Fitzjames?

North with Franklin grew out of my Young Adult novel Across Frozen Seas. I found Fitzjames' existing journal during that research and decided to complete his journal. My only aim at first was to recreate his voice and make the story plausible. I wasn't thinking novel at that time. It was only after I went to read the letters in the Scott Polar that I began to develop the characters and add the layers of a novel onto the first draft.

So you were able to work with Fitzjames's original letters -- what was that like?

Wonderful. I have always felt close to Fitzjames, so to be able to see his actual letters complete with the rough sketches and asides really made him come alive for me.

Did you read other Arctic narratives as part of your preparation?

Yes, but in fragments as I tried to track down a specific fact or get a sense of some aspect of Polar exploration life. I tried to avoid reading too many in large chunks because keeping Fitzjames' voice accurate was important and I didn't want it contaminated by the "official" journals of the time. I did however, use McClintock, McClure, Back, DeBray, and Klutschack.

In fleshing out Fitzjames, did you feel that you had to at some point leave the historical man behind?

No, but whether this was because I was remaining true to Fitzjames or because I became Fitzjames (or a mythical Wilson/Fitzjames) through my submersion in the story and was only being true to myself, I cannot say with certainty. I would like to think I was true to Fitzjames since that was an important aspect of writing the book, but I am too close to tell.

Margaret Atwood has said that there is something peculiarly Canadian about the Franklin saga. Do you agree? And how do you see your telling of part of that saga in relation to Canadian writing in general?

Franklin is only particularly Canadian in that it is a story of the North and the north, in idea and reality, is a huge part of Canadian consciousness. The Franklin saga itself is universal, embracing as it does tragedy brought on by hubris. It also has the strong appeal of mystery in almost all its elements, allowing the reader, or writer, to imprint their own consciousness on the tale. In as far as I think of my retelling of the Franklin saga in the context of Canadian writing in general, I think of it as outside the current trend towards post-modern deconstructionism. Compare it to Weibe's A Discovery of Strangers, which I feel lost a wonderful story in literary artifice. All I wanted to do was tell a story and let my friend have his say. If readers come away saying I liked the character of Fitzjames and I enjoyed his story, I am happy.

Did/do other Canadians with an interest in Franklin (e.g. Rudy Wiebe, Stan Rogers, Gwendolyn MacEwen) play a role in your thinking here?

Rudy Wiebe in a negative sense, see above. Stan Rogers very much so. I love the imagery of his lyrics. I suppose, in a sense, I am simply trying to create the feeling I get from his songs in the books I write. I suppose having grown up in Europe, I tend to go back to the European literary traditions for my influences. One book about the north which influenced me is German, The Terrors of Ice and Darkness by Christoph Ransmayr.

Who would you say is your ideal reader for this book?

Someone with a love of stories sitting in book-filled room on a winter's evening in a wing-backed chair by a roaring fire with ice cubes clinking in a scotch glass on the occasional table beside him. Me when the kids are grown up.

What's your next project? Still interested in the Franklin story?

Yes, and I am just finishing off a biography of Franklin for High Schools. However, my main interests are turning to Henry Hudson, another northern mystery. I am two-thirds of the way through a Young Adult novel on him and his son, and am working through the mental processes necessary to begin a novel for adults based on his life and dissappearence.