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The Navigator of New York

by Wayne Johnston

Question number one: Who discovered the North Pole? If you said “Robert E. Peary, USA, 1909,” you would be echoing the popularly accepted view. But you might be surprised to learn that that view has never been fully endorsed by the world’s scientific community. “The truth remains uncertain,” says today’s Encyclopedia Britannica. “In modern times his story attracts more doubters than believers,” says a 1998 book on the Arctic explorers.

Question number two: Who was Frederick Cook? Although his name is virtually unknown today, Cook was a rival American explorer who insisted that he, not Peary, had been the first to the North Pole, in 1908. The competing claims between these two men dominated newspaper headlines for many years – from 1909 to 1917 – and brought a sour end to the romantic era when an explorer was taken at their word. By demanding proofs of each other, both Cook and Peary put their exploits under a scientific scrutiny that neither could withstand.

Question number three: What is the North Pole anyway? Unlike the South Pole, it is not solid land, but rather an abstract point located in the middle of shifting Arctic seas and icefields. Plant a flag there, and it will have drifted hundreds of miles by the time the next party turns up to verify your story.

Material like this – with its tantalizing themes of truth, falsehood, ambition, envy, and the queasily shifting nature of reality – is pure gold for a fiction maker. In the hands of Newfoundland writer Wayne Johnston, it becomes a shape-shifting epic of magical proportions and dazzling complexity.

Readers have been wondering whether Johnston could possibly top (or even equal) his splendid fictional saga of Joey Smallwood, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams. The answer is a slightly qualified yes. There is the same masterful blend of fact and imagination, the same compelling drive to use fiction to answer the questions left unanswered by the historical record, and the same stylistic brilliance that can turn a description of icebergs into a sensory adventure rarely achieved in the pages of a modern novel.

If there is a caveat with this book, it is that Johnston has created a trickier and more complicated plot than in Colony, and that shoehorning in all the necessary details sometimes detracts from the larger canvas the artist is painting.

As in Colony, Johnston creates a fictional foil for Cook and Peary, a Newfoundland boy named Devlin Stead, who grows up believing that both his mother and his father committed suicide, until he receives a letter from a stranger in Brooklyn, a Dr. Frederick Cook, with some astounding news that casts doubt on the story. This news eventually carries Devlin to New York, where he becomes Cook’s protege and assistant, thus allowing him to journey along with Cook to the barren shores of Greenland, to a mythic northern confrontation with Peary and to the unearthly mysteries of the polar sea.

It also allows Johnston to conjure up late 19th-century Manhattan in all its manic frenzy of building, demolishing, rebuilding, tunnelling, exploiting, expanding, and revelling in its unique place in history. Utterly unforgettable is Johnston’s image of rich Manhattanites living in the upper-west-side Dakota in the 1880s, looking north over the as-yet-undeveloped bush and shanty-towns of the northern island, and hunting for small game with rifles from the Dakota’s roof garden or upper-storey windows. “When the shooting stopped, the shanties would come out of the woods and gather up the game, rabbit, foxes, and cook them over open fires.”

Johnston’s central concern, though, is Frederick Cook and the fascinating question posed by the historical record: How could an immensely attractive and gifted man, someone described by his staunch supporter Roald Amundsen as “the soul of honour and kindliness, lion-hearted in courage,” turn into a huckster who faked both the ascent of Mt. McKinley and the discovery of the North Pole?

Johnston’s fictional answer to that question takes the reader through a Byzantine plot full of twists and turns, but the truth ultimately comes down to Cook’s admission to Devlin: “Every attempt will be made to discredit me. But it will be enough for me if this controversy is never settled.” In other words, Peary’s failure is just as important to Cook as his own success.

This sounds horribly spiteful and out of keeping with a man of Cook’s character. The challenge Johnston has set for himself is to create a set of fictional circumstances that will convince us that Cook’s mysterious actions make sense and even contain a grain of moral bravery. Individual readers will have to decide whether the author has succeeded or not. Along the way, they will be transported by some of the most powerful and imaginative writing being produced in English today.