September 07, 2014

Graves of Ice: The Lost Franklin Expedition, George Chambers, The Northwest Passage, 1845

by John Wilson
Scholastic Canada
208 pp.
Ages 9-12
January 2014

The lost Franklin expedition has been in the news again  recently with an armada of Canadian Arctic vessels hunting new locations for the ships and men lost in 1848.  Now, courtesy of the incomparable John Wilson and Scholastic Canada's I Am Canada series, young readers will be able to accompany eighteen-year-old George Chambers on his own journey as a cabin boy on  the HMS Erebus, 1845.

Growing up in Woolwich, England listening to his father's tales of fighting Napoleon under Nelson in the Royal Navy and saving the life of a young John Franklin when sailing under Captain Cooke, George William Chambers is desperate to join Franklin's advertised expedition to complete the Northwest Passage.  Assigned as a cabin boy to Sir John and Commander James Fitzjames, George is essentially a servant and errand boy, but he takes advantage of any opportunities to learn all he can in training for a possible future as a marine.

The arduous journey of the Erebus and Terror ships, with numerous and necessary stops for water and provisions, sees them through the Orkneys, to Greenland, through Baffin Bay and then into the Arctic archipelago in which their truest hardships arise.  Time and time again, ice bars their travels, and the men must endure the cold, darkness, spoiled food and relentless boredom.
"I began to see us as mere toys at the whim of a cruel and uncaring nature." (pg. 88)
Though they wait out their first winter at Beechey Island, there is a second winter trapped in the ice off the north end of King William Island.  The cruelty of nature slams them with further losses of life and the ships' integrity, with conflicts arising more often as the men anxiously consider their few options.  George recounts the events until September, 1849, including the numerous search parties that set out by sled and the deaths of key figures on the expedition, notably Sir John Franklin, explorer Francis Crozier, marine William Braine, and Commander James Fitzjames whose last words to George emphasize the enormous nature of Arctic exploration:
"This land does not forgive.  Either meet it on its own terms, as the natives who live here do, or it will destroy you, as we are destroyed." (pg. 164)
The immensity of this expedition is well conveyed by John Wilson's formal accounts by George and other participants, whether in discussion with others or in their journals and notes.  The gravity of their exploration is easily depicted in the determination of the officers and marines to fulfil their mandate even while starving and confused.

Though John Wilson presents a plausible, albeit fictional, account of the outcome for the Franklin expedition of 1845, he provides the historical background in text and photographs that support his story.  It may only be with the ultimate discovery that completes the evidence picture that we will ever know how much of Graves of Ice is definitive or conjecture.  From John Wilson's pen, I suspect much legitimacy.

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