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Fatal Passage: The Untold Story of John Rae, the Arctic Adventurer Who Discovered the Fate of Franklin

by Ken McGoogan

Journalist and novel writer Ken McGoogan originally envisioned the material for Fatal Passage as a novel, but his research turned up such a fascinating story that he felt it would be better told as non-fiction. He made the correct decision.

John Rae is commonly considered a minor character in the search for John Franklin’s expedition. In 1854, Rae brought the first news of Franklin’s fate back to Europe, but because he worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company and not the British Navy, because his evidence was Inuit testimony, and, most damaging, because he had the temerity to report that Franklin’s men had resorted to cannibalism, he was vilified by the Victorian establishment. The fact that Rae was the most successful explorer of his age and employed exploration methods decades ahead of his time counted for nothing. He had slighted the honour of British sailors and stood in the way of the powerful Lady Jane Franklin’s mythologizing of her dead husband.

Based on extensive research and told in entertaining and readable prose, Fatal Passage restores Rae to his proper place in history. Rae trekked over 20,000 kilometres – half of them on snowshoes – surveyed almost 3,000 square kilometres of territory unexplored by Europeans, and, unlike any other explorer in the half-century following, survived by learning Inuit ways. His admiration for the abilities of the Inuit stands in dramatic contrast to the racism of his time.

McGoogan credits Rae with determining Franklin’s fate so accurately that all the ensuing work on the subject has simply elaborated and confirmed Rae’s original story, and argues convincingly for crediting Rae with discovering the last navigable link in the Northwest Passage. His text is also refreshingly free from the factual errors that mar many of the popular books on Franklin. This is an overdue book that makes an important contribution to Canadian and Arctic exploration history and yet remains compulsively readable for the non-specialist.