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. Volume VIII Number 5 . . . . November 2, 2001
Even after his death, Franklin's life continues to fascinate writers. He has been presented as a hero, an honourable officer striving nobly against impossible odds. He has also been depicted as a fool, who doomed himself and his expedition through his inflexible, archaic attitude. More than 150 years after his men buried him in an unknown grave in the centre of the land that kept calling him back, there is no agreement on Sir John Franklin. Perhaps the restless traveller will never be laid to rest, the mystery never solved. Perhaps John Franklin's journey will never end."
John Franklin is an outstanding addition to the excellent Canadian biographies series published by the Quest Library notwithstanding the fact that Franklin was not a Canadian, and, indeed, did not even set foot on what at that point in history was Canadian soil (or water). His achievements in exploring and mapping what was ultimately to be the Canadian Arctic, however, place him among the country's builders, and the mysterious story of his death in the north has become a central part of Canadian mythology.
The book follows the basic pattern of the series: presenting the subject's story in almost novel-like form, using dialogue, colourful description, and the details of everyday life. The story is presented in such a way that the reader is given not just the life of the subject, but also a broad overview of his profession (in this case the Royal Navy), as well as a broad-stroke presentation of the larger world against which his life is taking place - in this case the period stretching from the American and French Revolutions to the mid-nineteenth century. (Franklin was born in 1774 and died in 1847.) To aid in this layered presentation, the reader is provided with a very useful time chart which places the events of Franklin's life in parallel form to the major world events. The author is a skilled storyteller, and presents his tale in a fashion that will engage the interest of readers of any age; but he is at the same time presenting a synopsis that is historically accurate and sensitive to the values and outlooks of the period under scrutiny. To enhance the interest (and historical accuracy), the book is effectively illustrated with period illustrations. (And it would have been even further enhanced by a couple of good maps.)
Although Franklin is known to Canadians, and others, primarily for his explorations of the high Arctic, and particularly the fabled Northwest Passage, his life held a number of other fascinating dimensions which are engagingly presented by the author. Franklin began his career in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Era and fought under Admiral Horatio Nelson at both the Battle of Copenhagen and the Battle of Trafalgar the latter representing the last great sea battle of sailing ships, as well as the defeat of the French and Spanish navies. Somewhat later, Franklin found himself in one of the final skirmishes of the War of 1812, the battle of New Orleans. The author uses these adventures to provide a realistic assessment of life at sea and in the navy at war. In addition, he has readers follow Franklin through shipwreck on a mapping excursion to Australia, though voyages to China, Russia and Brazil, and to a rather dismal episode as Governor of Tasmania, then part of Britain's penal colony system. Through all of this, readers learn something of the man and his world, the better to understand the major focus of his life: the exploration of the Arctic. Franklin's initial explorations, in 1818, effectively opened the so-called Golden Age of British Arctic exploration; his death and disappearance along with that of his entire expedition - precipitated an immense search enterprise that brought that golden age to an end though ironically occasioning a scale of exploration that went beyond anything Franklin himself could have hoped to accomplish on his own.
The story of Franklin's adventures in the Arctic is vividly presented by the author: the terrible challenges of the ice and cold, the specter of starvation, and the almost insuperable difficulties of overland travel. Once again, however, this is more than just an adventure story. The author provides an important background to those explorations showing how the needs for scientific information, for example, drove British policy in this area. This last frontier was also one in which European and indigenous approaches were not easily bridged. Franklin very much represented the former, and his relationships with colleagues, and with the aboriginal and European inhabitants of North America are very frankly - but fairly - presented with this in mind. In addition, there is an excellent effort to explain Franklin's values and viewpoint in terms of his time and class, as well as his life experience. It is probably about as balanced an assessment as one could find of a man who is still so much a subject of controversy.
With this excellent overview, the reader is left with an appreciation of the enormous task early exploration of the Arctic represented and the debt that is owed to those adventures to took on the challenge and deadly risk not once but several times. As well, the reader is left with an understanding of the world that produced and motivated that intrepid group. John Franklin is a first rate story and a very useful addition to our understanding and appreciation of an important and unique segment of Canadian history.
Alexander D. Gregor is a member of the Centre for Higher Education
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