When the wrecks of the expeditionary ships HMS Erebus and Terror, lost while searching for the Northwest Passage in the mid–19th century, were finally discovered (in 2014 and 2016, respectively), the events marked the final mapping of some of the most mysterious geography of the Canadian subconscious.
The fate of the Franklin expedition is one of this country’s founding cultural myths, its very mysteriousness adding to its historical resonance. At the end of Ed O’Loughlin’s Minds of Winter, the two main characters – Nelson Nilsson and Fay Morgan – watch a news story on television in a bar in Inuvik. The bartender responds to the news of the Erebus’s discovery in a manner that goes a long way to summing up the novel’s theme: “So that’s the end of that,” he says bitterly. “HMS Erebus. They had to go and find her. They had to solve a perfectly good mystery.”
What makes a mystery “perfectly good” is its power to inspire and work upon our imaginations. The search for Franklin’s missing ships did more to map the Arctic than Franklin himself ever could have on his own. And the mystery of what happened to his expedition has been an abiding subject in Canadian arts and letters. If the history of exploration is the story of a shrinking world, Franklin’s expedition offered, in O’Loughlin’s formulation, “something magical, a hole in the map, an escape from dull causality.”
Nelson and Fay aren’t explorers, but they are both detectives. Nelson is looking for his brother, who has disappeared. Fay is looking for information relating to her grandfather. The two investigations are connected by a mysterious object, a 19th-century chronometer thought to have been lost with Franklin. More broadly, both are engaged in a “search for meaning,” a way of making sense of the siren call of the north. But their research only turns up “fragments, or footnotes, of some vision shimmering beyond their sight.” They may be chasing a myth as much as a mystery, the sort of thing Pierre Berton alluded to when he called his book on Arctic exploration The Arctic Grail (a work that O’Loughlin credits as his own chief resource).
The novel’s narrative structure is akin to the chronometer. Fay has “a vision of clockwork, of wheels within wheels, the hint of bigger wheels lurking behind them.” We skip forward and back in time, meeting figures famous and unknown, many of whom turn out to be related in eerie ways, their “stories converging at the poles, like meridians.” As with most modern novels dealing with such arcane connections, there is also the hint of conspiracy behind it all, with government agents, coded messages, secret devices, and obscure references to a Room 38. The scope is truly epic, taking us literally from pole to pole and covering 175 years of history. The narrative present follows the investigations of Nelson and Fay, but the story also takes us back to earlier events involving people like Sir John Franklin himself, the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen (another famous disappearing act), and the Mad Trapper of Rat River (whose identity remains to this day a point of speculation). The tale also adopts different narrative devices, ranging from newspaper reports to letters to a more conventional third-person narration.
There’s nothing unorthodox about any of this, though it’s certainly ambitious. Nor does O’Loughlin experiment much in the way of style, beyond presenting a story supposedly written by Jack London that’s done in a credible imitation of the author’s voice. Instead of stylistic pyrotechnics, there’s an economy of language and grounding in physical detail that casts a clear eye on the spare, climatically determined human environment and makes us feel the kidney-clamping cold and lungs lacerated by “razor-blade air.” The title comes from Wallace Stevens’s poem “The Snow Man,” and the novel builds a general sense reminiscent of Stevens’s listener, who beholds the “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” Emptiness, absence, and mystery are pregnant with meaning.
O’Loughlin may present us with a mystery – or really several mysteries – without any solution, but closure is not the goal. In fact, closure is something to be avoided. The point is not to tie up loose ends. It’s fitting that Nelson and Fay, both “prisoners of the north” in Pierre Berton’s phrase, are finally absorbed into the story, their identities dissolving as they themselves become footnotes in a new legend, conspiracy, or myth. Minds of Winter is a novel as much interested in unofficial as official histories, as much with people who slip through the cracks as with heroes. And it doesn’t want to ruin a perfectly good mystery.