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The Man Who Ate His Boots

April 12, 2010

John Franklin portrait, National Gallery of Art, London

The walls of Westminster Abbey feature this verse by Alfred Lord Tennyson, celebrating an absent honoree:

Not here! The White North hath thy bones, and Thou, heroic sailor soul, art passing on thy happier voyage now towards no earthly pole.

The plaque memorializes Arctic explorer John Franklin, who led the expedition that “found” the impassable Northwest Passage in 1848. Franklin’s earnest quest stands for the hubris of all England in the new book by National Geographic‘s Anthony Brandt, detailing the Empire’s 50-year effort to “triumph over the ice” after triumphing over Napoleon at Waterloo. “They believed it their peculiar destiny to do so,” Brandt writes. They also believed that ocean waters couldn’t freeze.

Brandt’s title, The Man Who Ate His Boots, gives some idea how it all turned out: “In the end two lavishly equipped ships and 129 men fell victim to the ice… There was no trace of dignity in the record left by their bones, which had been broken open by the last survivors for their marrow.”

But even knowing the unhappy outcome, I have a feeling there will be much to relish as I let Brandt lead me from the earliest voyages north of Spitzbergen to Franklin’s glorified folly decades later, detailing the discoveries and cartographic knowledge accomplished along the way. In only its earliest pages (my copy just arrived just yesterday from the publisher), I’m relishing his storytelling virtuosity and breezy sense of character: “Short and tending to corpulence, [Franklin] was almost excessively pious … and so kind that he would not swat mosquitoes but blew them off his skin.”

For those who like a scoop of enviro-politics with their history, Brandt explores the ironies behind the fact that climate change finally opened a genuine Northwest Passage in 2007, when the ice pack melted enough to allow shipping through, giving rise to a metaphor Al Gore (and Baskin-Robbins) would appreciate. For early Arctic explorer William Edward Parry, explains Brandt, “staring in wonder over this alabaster sea, in awe of what he was looking at and mindful of his own growing experience of sea ice, the idea that it all might one day melt away like so much ice cream would have been incomprehensible.”

I will plan to check back in with more stories from The Ice as I read about it from the comfort of my bed, where the air conditioning will soon be on but, should it prove frosty, a warm quilt will be always at hand.

Meanwhile, Boots must share space beside my bed with (gasp!) two non-Anglo titles: Ripe, the Search for the Perfect Tomato — a sprightly read just issued, by my friend Arthur Allen. And Then We Came to the End, the 2007 novel (a National Book Award finalist) by Joshua Ferris. During Spring break last week under a warm Caribbean sun (take that, John Franklin!), I finally read Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone, and admired it for more than just the novelty that a man could write so acutely about how vulnerable women feel.

What’s on your night table?

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One Comment leave one →
  1. April 29, 2010 4:50 am

    Great stuff. As a child, I used to play far out on Lake Michigan ice flows. When Spring came, a Southeast passage opened up, connecting New Buffalo Michigan to Michigan City Indiana.

    On the night table? Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguru.

    Your posts hold me spellbound.

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