With almost 40 books to his credit, John Wilson is no stranger to writing historical fiction and non-fiction for young readers. For this latest instalment in Scholastic’s Our Canada series, Wilson uses his considerable knowledge of historical events to create the fictional journal of George Chambers, a cabin boy signed on to John Franklin’s fateful expedition in search of the Northwest Passage.
George’s story is framed by a prologue and epilogue consisting of ruminations that emanate from his debilitated brain immediately before he freezes to death in an icy wasteland in the company of his commander’s corpse. The remainder of the novel is offered up as an organized retrospective – more memoir than diary.
George begins by describing his comfortable family life and unlikely friendship with Davy, a workhouse mudlark who becomes a cabin boy aboard the Erebus. George recounts the progress of the expedition, month by month, year by year: winters encased in ice, rare interactions with the Inuit (here called Equimaux, in accordance with Victorian usage), explorations on land, and the inexorable deaths of men suffering from tuberculosis, frostbite, starvation, and madness.
Wilson’s George is a proficient memoirist, but is neither vivid nor original: an iceberg is “an immense gleaming cathedral of ice”; the northern ocean a “calm, dark-blue sea”; the wind “[whistles] through the rigging.” Sensory perceptions, character, and voice are generic, despite nightmare conditions. Even Davy, Victorian street kid that he is, spouts sedate phrases such as “pressure that can reduce a ship to matchwood.”
Though Wilson’s writing lacks excitement, Graves of Ice will intrigue readers with the inherently interesting story of Franklin’s doomed journey.