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Authors: Owen Beattie

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Frozen in Time

BOOK: Frozen in Time
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For Shirley F. Keen.—J.G.
For my first grandchild, Akasha (a.k.a. Pumpy)—O.B.

Introduction

Frozen in time is one of those books that, having once entered our imaginations, refuse to go away. As I've been writing this introduction, I've described the project to several people.
“Frozen in Time,”
I say. They look blank. “The one with the picture of the Frozen Franklin on the front,” I say. “Oh yes.
That
one,” they say. “I read that!” And off we go on a discussion of forensic anthropology under extreme conditions. For
Frozen in Time
made a large impact, devoted as it was to the astonishing revelations made by Dr. Owen Beattie—including the high probability that lead poisoning had contributed to the annihilation of the 1845 Franklin expedition.

I read
Frozen in Time
when it first came out. I looked at the pictures in it. They gave me nightmares. I incorporated story and pictures as a subtext and extended metaphor in a short story called “The Age of Lead,” published in a 1991 collection called
Wilderness Tips.
Then, some nine years later, during a boat trip in the Arctic, I met John Geiger, one of the authors of
Frozen in Time.
Not only had I read his book, he had read mine, and it had caused him to give further thought to lead as a factor in northern exploration and in unlucky nineteenth-century sea voyages in general.

Franklin, said Geiger, was the canary in the mine, though unrecognized as such at first: until the last years of the nineteenth century, crews on long voyages continued to be fatally sickened by the lead in tinned food. Geiger has included the results of his additional research in this expanded version of
Frozen in Time.
The nineteenth century, he said, was truly an “age of lead.” Thus do life and art intertwine.

Back to the foreground. In the fall of 1984, a mesmerizing photograph grabbed attention in newspapers around the world. It showed a young man who looked neither fully dead nor entirely alive. He was dressed in archaic clothing and was surrounded by a casing of ice. The whites of his half-open eyes were tea-coloured. His forehead was dark blue. Despite the soothing and respectful adjectives applied to him by the authors of
Frozen in Time,
you would never have confused this man with a lad just drifting off to sleep. Instead he looked like a blend of
Star Trek
extraterrestrial and B-movie victim-of-a-curse: not someone you'd want as your next-door neighbour, especially if the moon was full.

Every time we find the well-preserved body of someone who died long ago—an Egyptian mummy, a freeze-dried Incan sac-rifice, a leathery Scandinavian bog-person, the famous iceman of the European Alps—there's a similar fascination. Here is someone who has defied the general ashes-to-ashes, dust-to-dust rule, and who has remained recognizable as an individual human being long after most have turned to bone and earth. In the Middle Ages, unnatural results argued unnatural causes, and such a body would either have been revered as saintly or staked through the heart. In our age, try for rationality as we may, something of the horror classic lingers: the mummy walks, the vampire awakes. It's so difficult to believe that one who appears to be so nearly alive is not conscious of us. Surely—we feel—a being like this is a messenger. He has travelled through time, all the way from his age to our own, in order to tell us something we long to know.

The man in the sensational photograph was John Torrington, one of the first three to die during the doomed Franklin expedition of 1845. The stated goal of the expedition was to discover the Northwest Passage to the Orient and claim it for Britain, the actual result was the obliteration of all participants. Torrington had been buried in a carefully dug grave, deep in the permafrost on the shore of Beechey Island, Franklin's base during the expedition's first winter. Two others—John Hartnell and William Braine—were given adjacent graves. All three were painstakingly exhumed by anthro-pologist Owen Beattie and his team in an attempt to solve a long-standing mystery: Why had the Franklin expedition ended so disastrously?

Beattie's search for evidence of the rest of the Franklin expedition, his excavation of the three known graves, and his subsequent discoveries, gave rise to a television documentary and then—three years after the photograph first appeared—to the book you are holding in your hands. That the story should generate such widespread interest 140 years after Franklin filled his fresh-water barrels at Stromness in the Orkney Islands before sailing off to his mysterious fate is a tribute to the extraordinary staying powers of the Franklin legend.

For many years the mysteriousness of that fate was the chief drawing card. At first, Franklin's two ships, the ominously named
Terror
and
Erebus,
appeared to have vanished into nothingness. No trace could be found of them, even after the graves of Torrington, Hartnell and Braine had been found. There is something unnerving about people who can't be located, dead or alive. They upset our sense of space—surely the missing ones have to be somewhere, but where? Among the ancient Greeks, the dead who had not been retrieved and given proper funeral ceremonies could not reach the Underworld; they lingered in the world of the living as restless ghosts. And so it is, still, with the disappeared: they haunt us. The Victorian age was especially prone to such hauntings, as witness Tennyson's
In Memoriam,
its most exemplary tribute to a man lost at sea.

Adding to the attraction of the Franklin story was the Arctic landscape that had subsumed leader, ships and men. In the nineteenth century very few Europeans—apart from whalers—had ever been to the far north. It was one of those perilous regions attractive to a public still sensitive to the spirit of literary Romanticism—a place where a hero might defy the odds, suffer outrageously, and pit his larger-than-usual soul against overwhelming forces. This Arctic was dreary and lonesome and empty, like the windswept heaths and forbidding mountains favoured by aficionados of the Sublime. But the Arctic was also a potent Otherworld, imagined as a beautiful and alluring but potentially malign fairyland, a Snow Queen's realm complete with otherworldly light effects, glittering ice-palaces, fabulous beasts—narwhals, polar bears, walruses—and gnome-like inhabitants dressed in exotic fur outfits. There are numerous drawings of the period that attest to this fascination with the locale. The Victorians were keen on fairies of all sorts; they painted them, wrote stories about them, and sometimes went so far as to believe in them. They knew the rules: going to an otherworld was a great risk. You might be captured by non-human beings. You might be trapped. You might never get out.

Ever since Franklin's disappearance, each age has created a Franklin suitable to its needs. Prior to the expedition's departure there was someone we might call the “real” Franklin, or even the Ur-Franklin—a man viewed by his peers as perhaps not the crunchiest biscuit in the packet, but solid and experienced, even if some of that experience had been won by bad judgment (as witness the ill-fated Coppermine River voyage of 1819). This Franklin knew his own active career was drawing to an end, and saw in the chance to discover the Northwest Passage the last possibility for enduring fame. Aging and plump, he was not exactly a dream vision of the Romantic hero.

Then there was Interim Franklin, the one who came into being once the first Franklin failed to return and people in England realized that something must have gone terribly wrong. This Franklin was neither dead nor alive, and the possibility that he might be either caused him to loom large in the minds of the British public. During this period he acquired the adjective “gallant,” as if he'd been engaged in a military exploit. Rewards were offered, search parties were sent out. Some of these men, too, did not return.

The next Franklin, one we might call Franklin Aloft, emerged after it became clear that Franklin and all of his men had died. Not only had they died, they had perished, and they had not just perished, they had perished miserably. But many Europeans had survived in the Arctic under equally dire conditions. Why had this particular group gone under, especially since the
Terror
and the
Erebus
had been the best-equipped ships of their age, offering the latest in technological advances?

A defeat of such magnitude called for denial of equal magnitude. Reports to the effect that several of Franklin's men had eaten several others were vigorously squelched. Those bringing the reports—such as the intrepid John Rae, whose story was told in Ken McGoogan's 2002 book,
Fatal Passage
—were lambasted in the press; and the Inuit who had seen the gruesome evidence were maligned as wicked savages. The effort to clear Franklin and all who sailed with him of any such charges was led by Jane, Lady Franklin, whose social status hung in the balance: the widow of a hero is one thing, the widow of a cannibal quite another. Due to Lady Jane's lobbying efforts, Franklin, in absentia, swelled to blimp-like size. He was credited—dubiously—with the discovery of the Northwest Passage and given a plaque in Westminster Abbey and an epitaph by Tennyson.

After such inflation, reaction was sure to follow. For a time in the second half of the twentieth century we were given Halfwit Franklin, a cluck so dumb he could barely tie his own shoelaces. Franklin was a victim of bad weather (the ice that usually melted in summer had failed to do so, not in just one year, but in three), but in the Halfwit Franklin reading, this counted for little. The expedition was framed as a pure example of European hubris in the face of Nature: Sir John was yet another of those Nanoodles of the North who came to grief because they wouldn't live by Native rules and follow Native advice—“Don't go there” being, on such occasions, Advice #1.

But the law of reputations is like a bungee cord: you plunge down, you bounce up, though to diminishing depths and heights each time. In 1983, Sten Nadolny published
The Discovery of Slowness,
a novel that gave us a thoughtful Franklin, not exactly a hero but an unusual talent, and certainly no villain. Rehabilitation was on the way.

Then came Owen Beattie's discoveries and the description of them in
Frozen in Time.
It was now clear that Franklin was no arrogant idiot. Instead he became a quintessentially twentieth-century victim: a victim of bad packaging. The tins of food aboard his ships had poisoned his men, weakening them and clouding their judgment. Tins were quite new in 1845, and these tins were sloppily sealed with lead, and the lead had leached into the food. But the symptoms of lead poisoning were not recognized at the time, being easily confused with those of scurvy. Franklin can hardly be blamed for negligence, and Beattie's revelations constituted exoneration of a kind for Franklin.

There was exoneration of two other kinds, as well. By going where Franklin's men had gone, Beattie's team was able to experience the physical conditions faced by the surviving members of Franklin's crews. Even in summer, King William Island is one of the most difficult and desolate places on earth. No one could have done what these men were attempting—an overland expedition to safety. Weakened and addled as they were, they didn't have a hope. They can't be blamed for not making it.

The third exoneration was perhaps—from the point of view of historical justice—the most important. After a painstaking, finger-numbing search, Beattie's team found human bones with knife marks and skulls with no faces. John Rae and his Inuit witnesses, so unjustly attacked for having said that the last members of the Franklin crew had been practising cannibalism, had been right after all. A large part of the Franklin mystery had now been solved.

Another mystery has since arisen: Why has Franklin become such a Canadian icon? As Geiger and Beattie report, Canadians weren't much interested at first: Franklin was British and the North was far away, and Canadian audiences preferred oddities such as the well-known midget Tom Thumb. But over the decades, Franklin has been adopted by Canadians as one of their own. For example, there were the folksongs, such as the traditional and often-sung “Ballad of Sir John Franklin”—a song not much remembered in England—and Stan Rogers' well-known “Northwest Passage.” Then there were the contributions of writers. Gwendolyn MacEwen's radio drama
Terror and Erebus
was first broadcast in the early 1960s; the poet Al Purdy was fascinated by Franklin; the novelist and satirist Mordecai Richler considered him an icon ripe for iconoclasm, and, in his novel
Solomon Gursky Was Here,
added a stash of cross-dresser women's clothing to the contents of Franklin's ships. What accounts for such appropriation? Is it that we identify with well-meaning non-geniuses who get tragically messed up by bad weather and evil food suppliers? Perhaps. Or perhaps it's because—as they say in china shops—if you break it, you own it. Canada's North broke Franklin, a fact that appears to have conferred an ownership title of sorts.

It's a pleasure to welcome
Frozen in Time
back to the bookshelves in this revised and enlarged edition. I hesitate to call it a groundbreaking book, as a pun might be suspected, but groundbreaking it has been. It has contributed greatly to our knowledge of a signal event in the history of northern journeying. It also stands as a tribute to the enduring pull of the story—a story that has passed through all the forms a story may take. The Franklin saga has been mystery, surmise, rumour, legend, heroic adventure and national iconography; and here, in
Frozen in Time,
it becomes a detective story, all the more gripping for being true.

Margaret Atwood

BOOK: Frozen in Time
11.15Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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