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The Man Who Mapped the Arctic: The Intrepid Life of George Back, Franklin’s Lieutenant

by Peter Steele

Whitehorse author Peter Steele is a biographer who has done his share of northern travelling. In The Man Who Mapped the Arctic, Steele turns his attention to one of the hardiest 19th-century Arctic explorers, George Back, who led two expeditions and sailed on three others under John Franklin. Both of Back’s expeditions were failures, although his achievement in navigating the Back River across the Barren Lands in 1834 was extraordinary. Often unpopular as a young man, Back managed to live long enough to become one of the elder statesmen of Arctic exploration.

For much of The Man Who Mapped the Arctic Back is almost a secondary character. More than half of the book deals with Franklin’s two overland expeditions, where Back is often overshadowed by John Richardson, Robert Hood, and Franklin himself. This is not entirely Steele’s fault: Back tended to be reticent about his own accomplishments in his writings. This doesn’t explain why the last 50 years of Back’s life are passed over in a mere 11 pages. Only in a few chapters, such as the one describing his imprisonment during the Napoleonic wars, does the reader obtain a strong sense of Back’s character.

There are also difficulties with occasionally confusing chronology, repetition (the reader is told four times how much meat a voyageur required per day), and minor factual errors – the last Europeans to see Franklin alive did not do so in Lancaster Sound, but on the other side of Baffin Bay. Even the title is misleading – William Parry, James Ross, Francis McClintock, and others added more to the Admiralty charts and maps than Back.

Steele provides a wealth of background detail that will be of interest to a reader not familiar with the extensive recent literature on Arctic exploration. However, anyone who has read the stories of Franklin’s escapades will not come away with many new insights on Back.