Writing Arctic Journals
- John Wilson (Author)
North With Franklin: The Lost Journals of James Fitzjames. Fitzhenry & Whiteside (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Clara Vyvyan (Author), I. MacLaren (Editor), and Lisa N. LaFramboise (Editor)
The Ladies, the Gwich'in, and the Rat: Travels on the Athabasca, Macekenzie, Rat, Porcupine, and Yukon Rivers in 1926. University of Alberta Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Sherrill Grace
Few explorers or travellers go North without keeping a journal or a diary, and many of these individuals publish their journals after they return to southern civilization. But within the parameters of exploration/ travel and of diary/journal writing, there is plenty of room for difference: some people go North as professionals to chart unknown lands and coastlines; some go North for the thrill of adventure or a love of exotic places. And many readers enjoy going North vicariously, in their imaginations.
James Fitzjames was Captain of the Erebus and, by 1848, second-in-command of Sir John Franklin’s 1845 expedition in search of the Northwest Passage. Clara Vyvyan and her companion Gwendolen Dorrien Smith were middle-class Englishwomen with sufficient means to indulge a thirst for freedom and adventure by travelling through some of the most rugged and remote areas of the western Arctic in 1926. Fitzjames almost certainly kept a journal, although it, like his remains, has never been found; Clara Vyvyan published her journal in a 1961 book called Arctic Adventure. Fitzjames’s book is fiction; Vyvyan’s book is not. But the scripted reality of both texts is what, finally, fascinates me because these two books raise a fundamental question about what it means to write and publish a personal account of journeys into the Canadian North.
The MacLaren and LaFramboise edition of Vyvyan’s book adds new material to the original. Here, for the first time, are 59 black-and-white photographs of the early North, colour reproductions of Dorrien Smith’s watercolour sketches made during their travels, appendices with Vyvyan’s field notes, a list of plants collected during the trip, and extensive notes to the text prepared by the editors. The result is an informative double-voiced text that allows the reader to see what Vyvyan did not include from her field notes in her original publication. Without offering an elaborate theory of her position thirty years after her travels, Vyvyan was nonethless aware of the highly constructed nature of her endeavour and of the decidedly selective powers of memory. She explains that "memory will often distort or discolour truth" and that "it is not easy ... to recapture from the past the story of any adventure, as it really happened."
However we choose to classify her narrative—as a faithful representation of reality or as a carefully crafted story—MacLaren and LaFramboise have transformed her text into a much more fully representative and documented account than the author herself created. Through their introduction, they provide background and context to explain how the two Englishwomen were cared for along their route. The maps they provide trace the routes and mark the rivers they travelled as they crossed from the Mackenzie to the Yukon watersheds before commencing their trip up the Rat. The photographs provide an invaluable record of the country and the people in 1926. My favorites, without question, are snapshots of the guides and the ladies hauling and canoeing up the turbulent, powerful Rat. The book itself has been beautifully designed and produced in every respect, and the quality of reproduction for the watercolour sketches is superb.
Wilson’s North With Franklin has also received close attention to design and presentation. To pick up this text is to pick up an object of approximately the same size and shape as an expedition journal, except that in this case the look is a clever trompe d’oeil. The dustjacket bears two reproductions of nineteenth-century paintings of arctic expeditions; the endpapers are illustrated with maps showing the Arctic as Franklin and Fitzjames knew it in 1845-49; the many illustrations within the journal proper are all from documented sources. In short, North With Franklin poses as the real thing, a found journal that has been edited and published for the first time. In fact, of course, it is a fiction: no journals have been recovered from the fatal Franklin expedition.
Although I know the story of what happened to Franklin and his men, although I know how Fitzjames came to take command of the sad remnants of the crew, and although I know about the errors in judgement, the incomplete maps, the evidence of lead-poisoning, the cannibalism, the sledges weighed down with useless objects, and the Victory Point record with its two messages, I am helpless before this compelling story. Knowing what happened never makes the story dull or predictable, unless it is the predictability of high tragedy brought on by human error and hubris. You may not be such an incurable romantic as I, but I am prepared to wager that you too will be capit-vated by Wilson’s narrative and find yourself, as I was, reading eagerly to find out when James will record what we know is coming next. For the James Fitzjames created in this journal/novel is a character based on the historical record but exceeding that record; his story is one of adventure, and of a gradual gaining of awareness and self-understanding. It is also a love story. And a mystery story. Which you must read for yourself, because if I say more, I will spoil the story.
From journal to journal, these two thoroughly delightful books, beautifully produced and extremely well-written, offer two almost completely contrasting eye-witness accounts of travel through Canada’s Arctic. Franklin and his men were working on what was a glorious mission; the ladies were tourists, carefully handed from one capable pair of northern hands to the next. The men died; the ladies survived. The men, with one exception (Crozier), thought they knew best; the ladies did as they were told. In both books, the narrator/characters come alive with startling clarity, and in both books we are allowed to glimpse what it was like to search for the Northwest Passage 150 years ago or to travel, where ladies were not expected to go, in the early twentieth century. Above all, the editors of the one and the author of the other journal, demonstrate the fascinating challenges of writing about the North and how fundamentally personal and fictional our accounts must always be.
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MLA: Grace, Sherrill. Writing Arctic Journals. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 25 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #170-171 (Autumn/Winter 2001), Nature / Culture. (pg. 247 - 249)
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