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Dead Reckoning: The Untold Story of the Northwest Passage

by Ken McGoogan

The Arctic adventures of explorers like Sir John Franklin are familiar to the many Canadians who harbour a seemingly insatiable interest in the discovery of the Northwest Passage. But for every white man obsessed with glory, there were, for example, numerous anonymous Inuit translators and Métis porters who accompanied them on their voyages. And while there have been books and articles focusing on individual stories, Canadian historian Ken McGoogan writes, “nobody has sought to integrate those figures into a sweeping chronicle of northern exploration.” In his latest book, McGoogan succeeds admirably in filling this void.

The book is organized chronologically, with short, character-driven chapters. A quick glance at the chapter titles shows McGoogan’s commitment to focus on the contributions of First Nations to the exploration of the Arctic: “What Thanadelthur Made Possible”; “Tattannoeuck Prevents a Second Debacle”; “Tookoolito and Hall Gather Inuit Accounts.”

McGoogan’s honesty about the era’s racism is particularly praiseworthy. He describes the circumstances that led to so many people making bad decisions, exposing the racist views that drove them and the resultant foolish, sometimes cruel behaviour they engendered. McGoogan underscores his point in a chapter titled “Erebus and Terror Validate Inuit Testimony,” a short examination of the recent discoveries of Franklin’s sunken ships. The author looks at the way the findings to date definitively debunk established theories.

McGoogan makes it clear that he has a favourite white explorer. John Rae rarely gets what McGoogan feels is his due in the annals of Arctic exploration. In fact, the last half of Dead Reckoning focuses on the role Lady Jane Franklin played in championing her husband’s supposed achievements at Rae’s expense. The space devoted to this material, while surely germane to the history of the region, proves almost too much in the context of the current book; the text loses its otherwise groundbreaking focus on First Nations.

McGoogan laments that “for years I had been urging people to stop obsessing over Sir John Franklin, that unfortunate Englishman.” Dead Reckoning should help shift the focus to others whose strengths and successes were more notable than their failures.