So long ago now, way back in the summer, I read The Voyage of the Narwhal. It was recommended to me by both Valerie and TJ after my plea for follow-up books to The Signature of All Things. It has only taken me so long to write about it because it’s not a library book with a due date, so I kept pushing it off in favour of books that were. I am more than happy to pass on the strong recommendation for this historical adventure.
The Voyage of the Narwhal tells the story of a quiet scientist, Erasmus, who takes an opportunity to sail to the Arctic to study the flora and fauna on a ship with a Commander who is determined to succeed at all cost. He is also unofficially expected to keep an eye on this Commander, his sister’s fiance, and make sure he gets back in one piece. He is soon to discover how difficult this task will be, on top of the hardships of the Arctic. He finds himself faced with difficult choices to make regarding the safety of himself, his commander, and the crew.
Meanwhile, at home, his sister and her friend are awaiting the Narwhal’s return. Will the men return triumphant in their goal to find the lost crew of Sir John Franklin’s expedition, and the open polar sea? Or will they become lost themselves, as so many have before them?
It was disturbing, Erasmus thought, to watch the air that had lived inside their lungs turn into buckets of dirty ice. Tossing the shavings over the side, he felt as if he were discarding parts of himself.
Not only were the Arctic creatures and landscape of great interest, but so were the Esquimaux. In The Signature of All Things, the underlying scientific question is evolution vs. creationism, whereas in The Voyage of the Narwhal, it is polygenism, the idea that humans have more than one origin of evolution (see Louis Agassiz and Samuel Morton). This topic gets introduced and discussed as the crew on board the Narwhal come across Esquimaux living in the regions they are exploring. The idea of polygenism also had an impact on the anti-slavery movement that was going on at the time.
I love this paragraph near the end, from the point of view of one of the Esquimaux women:
Much later, when Annie was grown, she’d had her mother’s experience to guide her when the other strangers arrived. Kane and his men had taught Annie to understand their ungainly speech, and Annie had learned that the world was larger than she’d understood, though much of it was unfortunate, even cursed. Elsewhere, these visitors said, were lands with no seals, no walrus, no bears; no sheets of coloured light singing across the sky. She couldn’t understand how these people survived. They’d been like children, dependent on her tribe for clothes, food, sledge, dogs; surrounded by things which were of no use to them and bereft of women. Like children they gave their names to the landscape, pretending to discover places her people had known for generations.
The Signature of All Things took me through a history of botany and evolution, while this book took me through the history of Arctic exploration and the scientists and explorers who had a hand in it; Titian Peale, Charles Wilkes, Elisha Kent Kane, Sir John Franklin, and John Rae.
It has also led me to look for other good books about Arctic exploration and sea voyages. So far, on my list I have In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides, Endurance by Alfred Lansing, The Arctic Grail by Pierre Berton, and In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick. Any other recommendations?
Visit Andrea Barrett’s website to see the rest of her delectable looking books. I already have Ship Fever on my list.