There is no dearth of books about Sir John Franklin and the 1845 tragedy that befell him and the 129 crew with whom he sailed on the ships HMS Erebus and Terror in pursuit of the fabled Northwest Passage. But since the discovery (in 2014 and 2016, respectively) of the shipwrecks, a sense of urgency has emerged in telling the definitive story. Who better to answer the call than Paul Watson? The Pulitzer Prize–winning photojournalist was aboard the Parks Canada ship CCGS Sir Wilfrid Laurier when it found the Erebus wreck.
Ice Ghosts is broken into three sections: “The Expedition,” “The Hunt,” and “The Discovery.” These section headings are fairly self-explanatory, but it should be noted that the discovery in part three doesn’t occur until the last 50 (or so) pages of the main narrative. Preceding those exhilarating scenes – in which more than 160 years’ worth of searching and information-gathering is finally rewarded – comes a thorough and entertaining account of the efforts to locate the ships, the people who played the most vital roles in those efforts, and the ongoing racism that prevented their earlier discovery.
The role of the Inuit and their knowledge about what happened to Franklin and his ships forms a large portion of Watson’s focus. Starting with the earliest searches in the 1850s, the British Admiralty and others dismissed the input of the local population as largely useless or suspect. Even when potential rescuers did accept such help, they often bungled things, or found that the constraints of their own circumstances rendered them unable to act. Regarding modern search efforts, Watson gives great (and due) credit to Louie Kamookak, an amateur Franklinite whose life’s work has been to record the oral history of the Inuit people regarding the ill-fated ships and crew. His work, and that of the other individuals who made the discoveries possible, is a wonder to read about.
Perhaps most gratifying is the attention Watson gives to Franklin’s widow, Lady Jane, who is presented as determination personified. Not content to play the role of grieving Victorian widow, Lady Jane used all her power – and much of her own money – to initiate searches for her lost husband, even venturing to the Arctic herself (though by that time she knew Sir John was long dead).
Watson brings a lot of great things to this book, from his research to his easy tone to his unwavering quest to give voice to the underdogs. His journalist’s skill with great descriptive prose is on full display. The third section opens with a second-person narrative that evokes the northern landscape so thoroughly it is impossible not to feel immersed in the experience.
For some readers, there will never be enough written about Franklin. Now that the ships have been located, the possibilities for more material based on findings therein feel limitless. For now, however, Watson’s book provides a great overall view of the history of all things Franklin, complete with a satisfying conclusion.