Blasts from the Past: The Voyage of the Narwhal by Andrea Barrett (1998)

Cover image This is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy in as many hands as I could.

When I was in bookselling I knew that if a rep showed me a book on the Franklin expedition we were likely to be on to a winner. There seems to be an enduring interest in polar exploration – anything on Shackleton or Scott was also likely to be a sure-fire bestseller. There’s an air of romance about it: even though the expeditions were failures, they’re seen as magnificent failures. Andrea Barrett’s dramatic, vividly expressed novel, which follows Zeke Voorhees in his search for the remains of Franklin’s expedition, seemed to me to capture the spirit of the time and its overriding desire to extend the bounds of knowledge, either for its own sake or, in this case, to further secure Britain’s mercantile ambitions through the discovery of a new trading route.

Zeke sets off on his ill-judged voyage in 1855, ten years after Franklin, accompanied by his future brother-in-law Erasmus Darwin Wells, an amateur naturalist. As Zeke’s enthusiasm transforms itself into a lonely despotic command of the voyage, Erasmus becomes more and more uneasy about the outcome of the adventure. When Zeke strikes out on his own, Erasmus has no option but to try to guide the crew of the Narwhal – much depleted by the hardships of facing a winter ill prepared – to safety. On his return, he finds himself estranged from his sister who blames him for leaving Zeke behind, and derided by the public for the failure of his mission. When Zeke does reappear he brings with him two Eskimos, as the indigenous people were then known. Erasmus is at first delighted and then appalled by his plan to stage a lecture tour featuring the Eskimos as exhibits. What follows is heartrending.

Franklin and his crew’s disappearance remained a transfixing mystery for the public with many expeditions launched in search of their remains. In 2014 the Victoria Strait Expedition announced that it had found Erebus, one of the Franklin’s two ships, an announcement confirmed by the Canadian Prime Minster in Parliament.

 What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?

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20 thoughts on “Blasts from the Past: The Voyage of the Narwhal by Andrea Barrett (1998)”

  1. As you say, there is a fascination in literature for anything polar and in that spirit a YA novel I very much enjoyed was Geraldine McCaughrean’s The White Darkness about a teenager who is obsessed with Captain Oates. Definitely worth a read.

  2. This ticks several boxes for me: polar exploration, the Victorian period, adventure. I loved the one Andrea Barrett book I read, Archangel, a collection of linked stories about science and history, and have always meant to read more by her. I have a copy of Ship Fever on the shelf.

    1. This one sounds right up your street, then. I’ve read and enjoyed it several times now. I also loved Ship Fever and can recommend The Air We Breathe but haven’t yet read Archangel. It looks like it hasn’t been published here.

  3. I cmfess to ignorance about the Franklin Expedition though you’re right about our continued fascination about Scott. A friend of mine just finished directing a play set in a nursing home where the inhabitants think they are part of his expedition.

    1. What a great premise! I was given Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the World when I was about thirteen by an uncle which put me off a bit. It was very hard work.

      1. Heheh That’s something I was wondering, if O’Loughlin’s book had gotten you thinking! I loved Ship Fever too, but I don’t think I followed up with her others.

        I do have another polar read on my shelves, with a thin (maybe) Scott connection (he’s referred to in the blurb, at least): Elizabeth Arthur’s Antarctic Navigation.

        Themes of extremes: they do have an inherent appeal!

        1. It did! I’ve read several of Barrett’s other books and have enjoyed them all. Themes of extremes, indeed – I think there my be some appeal in the idea of reading these books when tucked up warm and safe at home. Books on Polar exploration were particularly popular in the winter in our bookshop.

  4. The Voyage of the Narwhal is a great book, and I’ve meant to read another one of her books since.
    I know some of the reviews for Minds of Winter sound discouraging, but I do think anyone with an interest in this kind of thing would find it a rewarding read!

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