Ruining A Good Mystery

Reviewed by Neta Gordon

Late in the novel Minds of Winter, the character Hugh Morgan—a somewhat shadowy figure whose work as a navigator for the Canadian Air Force is only barely understood—reflects that, owing to improvements in flight technology following World War II, the work of the old-fashioned seafaring cartographers is finished. That is, the ability to view the globe from ever-increasing altitudes has changed the very meanings of maps. Maps, thinks Morgan, were “built on hacks and heuristics and mistakes and lies”; maps, as Irish Canadian writer Ed O’Loughlin’s novel explores, were the kinds of deceptively objective narratives that made legends out of great men—their explorations, their failures, and their secrets.

O’Loughlin’s novel about polar exploration and cartography is an almost textbook example of historiographic metafiction: taking up the role of archival “detectives” are Nelson Nilsson and Fay Morgan, whose chance encounter at the tiny airport in Inuvik in the Northwest Territories is one of the many meaningful coincidences the text tracks. The “archive” is made up of a set of inconclusive documents about nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century polar adventures, which have been left in the Inuvik apartment of Nelson’s brother Bert, and which appear to obliquely pursue the movements of a recently discovered chronometer linked to the doomed Franklin expedition. Thus, O’Loughlin weaves together a number of mysteries: Who salvaged the chronometer? How did it end up in England and come to sit on the mantelpiece in the home of Fay’s grandparents? Why was Bert so consumed with the movements of the chronometer and of polar explorers? And, by the way, where is Bert? Why did he invite his estranged brother to Inuvik only to disappear? The “documents”—which make up most of the text—are generically diverse: there are personal letters, confidential memoranda, first-person witness accounts, a fake Jack London tale, and a number of narratives that cannot possibly be part of Bert’s archive but which add to O’Loughlin’s expansive consideration of the way writing—like cartography—is often about leaving (or hiding) traces. For example, Ensign Bellot, part of the crew of the Prince Albert, one of Lady Franklin’s search vessels, hopes that his own daily journal will become a successful book, owing to the “great shortage of French polar explorers on the literary market.” This same man, however, is horrified at the marking of Bellot Strait on a map tracking the Northwest Passage, claiming that the waterway he is credited with discovering does not exist, but was rather “seen” by an Irish child who has visions sent to her by her dead sister. Likewise, the various stories about “The Mad Trapper” of the Northwest Territories are significant both because they persist in circulating and because they are all totally unverifiable.

What links all the various documents and narratives contained in Minds of Winter is that they are about what have historically been thought of as the most inaccessible places on the planet: as Fay muses, “Maybe stories converge at the poles.” Lurking among O’Loughlin’s crisp prose and evocative scenes is the idea that attempts to navigate these regions were especially difficult because they are always in flux, and more often than not such attempts resulted in failure, disappearance, and death. Paradoxically, though, for this reason these are precisely the sites of all manner of white colonial hunger for acts of story and legend-making. For all its emphasis on recovering unofficial histories, Minds of Winter rests, to a large extent, on a kind of uncritical nostalgia for the myth of the “mysterious” Arctic and Antarctic. Operating in tension with the themes of the novel, then, is a sense of unsettlement, relating both to the way that, currently, these regions are undergoing radical transformations owing to climate change, and—more importantly—that the very notions of exploration, cartography, and quests to name the land depend as much on erasures as they do on documentation.

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