For most people, the announcement in 2014 by then prime minister Stephen Harper that a Parks Canada–led expedition to the Canadian Arctic had discovered the wreck of the HMS Erebus, one of the two ships involved in the ill-fated 1845 voyage of Sir John Franklin and his 133 crew in pursuit of the Northwest Passage, made for a few days of tantalizing reading and peering at blurry images from the wreckage’s underwater berth. For others, however, the discovery was only the latest (albeit monumental) piece in a largely incomplete puzzle that has tested the patience and endurance of amateur and professional Franklin seekers alike.
Finding Franklin, by American professor and self-professed Franklin junkie Russell A. Potter, aims to set out, in a roughly chronological manner, details about the various searches and efforts made over the past century and a half to unravel the mystery of what happened to Franklin and his men. Potter makes few real attempts to hypothesize about the explorers’ fates, focusing instead on those who made it their mission to find out. This is not a book about the prize, but the quest to attain it.
Potter provides an engaging and worthwhile overview of the lasting fascination with Franklin, introducing key players and events, and discussing the expedition’s influence on literature (mentioning Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Atwood, Pierre Berton, and Joseph Conrad as prime examples), before moving on to more detailed accounts of various search efforts. Some of these are obvious in their significance, while others, Potter admits, may have been considered less so, certainly at the time, but have proved worthwhile in hindsight. Describing the feats and failures of the explorers, the ways in which they were all at the mercy of the Arctic environment, and the gaffes and tactical errors that resulted in missed opportunities or the “discovery” of the same artifacts decades apart by different people, Potter paints a picture of men driven by passion and a thirst for glory, as much as a desire to find answers.
What becomes increasingly evident is Potter’s own fervent interest in his subject matter. The narrative is delivered in a somewhat breathless tone that creates a contagious sense of excitement. There are times, however, when the author gets a bit carried away, as when he waxes poetic about the recently renewed interest in Franklin: “[I]n the mirror of his fate we behold our uncanny double, a figure whose motives and gestures darkly figure forth our own, through whether to mock us or to warn us we know not.”
Despite these occasional lapses into purple prose, and a dizzying array of explorers to keep straight (Potter makes frequent references to different figures and discoveries while in the midst of discussing others), Finding Franklin is an accessible read for those who have been sucked into the mystery on a fairly superficial level. Diehard fans and theorists will likely be left with little in the way of new knowledge, but may enjoy this heartfelt tribute by one of their own.