Thursday, March 10, 2016

Discovering the North-West Passage: The Four-Year Arctic Odyssey of HMS Investigator and the McClure Expedition, by Glenn M. Stein

McFarland, 2015
376 pp

paperback - my copy from the publisher, thanks!!

--also, my thanks to the people  or algorithms at  LibraryThing and the early reviewers' program for the opportunity to read this book.

April, 1853.  While their ship is imprisoned in the Arctic ice at Mercy Bay, four men from HMS Investigator are hard at work "hacking out a final resting place" for a "departed shipmate."  The captain of this vessel, Robert John Le Mesurier McClure, was speaking with the first lieutenant when suddenly they saw someone coming toward them from the entrance of the bay.  The arrival of the newcomer saved the lives of McClure and his crew after what was indeed a hellish expedition that had started in 1850.

McClure, along with Collinson,  commander of a second ship, HMS Enterprise, had been tasked with searching for any signs of the missing Franklin expedition, which had left England in 1845.  It wasn't the first such expedition, but by the time McClure and Collinson were heading toward the Arctic, no one had yet discovered any clues as to the fate of the crews of the Erebus and the Terror.  The Investigator and the Enterprise were supposed to have taken up the search and head into the ice together, since the Admiralty had decided that two ships would be safer than one alone, but McClure, a man driven by ambition,  had other ideas, and decided to risk going alone.  After all, finding the Northwest Passage was "the holy grail" of the time, and he saw an opportunity for future glory, fame and of course, the hefty reward that was being offered for doing so.  Discovering the North-West Passage details the story of the outcome of McClure's ambition, which would ultimately land him in the same fate as the Franklin expedition by 1853, but thankfully for the crew, with a much better outcome.   Obviously, there's so much more to this story than I'm describing here, including a horrendous plan McClure was planning to set into motion just before help arrived that really reveals just how far gone in his egomania he'd become,  but I'll leave it for others to discover.

It is a fascinating story, to be sure.  A look at the bibliography alone reveals close to 15 double-columned pages of source material, much of it primary sources that includes the journals of some of the crew. He also adds an entire appendix about these first-hand accounts.  The idea a reader may walk away with is that McClure, who was a bit of an egomaniac, had ordered all of the crew who had kept an ongoing journal to turn their diaries over to him once rescue arrived, but these seem to have been destroyed when he realized that Investigator was going to be left behind in the ice. The surgeon, Armstrong, was the only one whose journal survived intact, and it is through his eyes that we get a good feel for what was really going on during the expedition, often countering the more rosy, untrue accounts given by McClure.   However, at the same time, the wealth of documentation used by the author in presenting his absolutely riveting account does tend to become the book's own worst enemy -- there is so much minutiae to sift through and a lot of what I would consider unnecessary detail that tends to bog down an otherwise incredibly interesting and eye-opening account of another chapter in the history of polar exploration.

 The author is an outstanding researcher and I can understand why he would want to include a great number of his more extraneous findings here, but when it comes right down to it, there has to be a time when a writer needs to hold back or at least let an editor help him out and this is one of those.  Conversely, I was so wrapped up in the narrative that I quickly figured out what was important and what would add to my own knowledge, and what I could easily skim without losing the main flow.  This is an account that by the time I'd finished reading, chilled me to the bone knowing what could have easily happened to these poor men who had already suffered enough had it not been for the arrival of salvation on that April day in 1853.  Definitely recommended.