The Voyage of the Narwhal by Andrea Barrett

763952So 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.

95740The 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.

37 thoughts on “The Voyage of the Narwhal by Andrea Barrett

  1. TJ @ MyBookStrings says:

    I was waiting for this review, and I am so glad you liked this book. I dug out her story collection Servants of the Map to reread. I’m sure you’d like that one as well. I am going to try to read Endurance for NF November, and In the Kingdom of Ice is on my TBR Pile as well. I will let you know if I can think of any other recommendations.

    • Naomi says:

      It’s nice to be reminded of old favourites, isn’t it? And, to bring back the love for them. So glad I read this.
      I would love to have dug deeper into Zeke’s character, but this was one of those books that you can either just brush the surface of, or else write a whole essay. It had taken me so long to finally review it to begin with that I took the first option.

  2. Carolyn O says:

    You sold me with that last quotation—wonderful! My mother is a connoisseur of Arctic and Antarctic exploration books, and she is really interested in Shackleton; pretty sure Endurance is one of her favorites. I’m thinking about reading In the Heart of the Sea but I’ve heard it’s really grim.

    And of course there’s Moby-Dick . . .

    • Naomi says:

      Will I ever read Moby Dick? I still haven’t decided…
      There is a whole section of the book about the exploitation of Annie and her son (the Annie from the quotation). So good.
      I have The Heart of the Sea out from the library right now, but haven’t gotten to it yet. I’m hoping no one else will want it for a while.

  3. susan says:

    I guess I would heartily recommend Caroline Alexander’s 1998 hardback “The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition.” It has great text and photos. South Pole though. I hope to read The Heart of the Sea before the movie comes out at Christmas. But I won’t get to it till Dec.

    • Naomi says:

      Thanks for the recommendation – it’s added to the list! Do you know how it compares to Alfred Lansing’s book about The Endurance?
      I didn’t know The Heart of the Sea is being made into a movie!

      • susan says:

        Oh yes the Alfred Lansing book on The Endurance is excellent. I’d read that one first. It was first written in 1959 (my copy is all marked up). Caroline Alexander’s 1998 book perhaps has an updated perspective and newer research. Both books are excellent. It’s hard to pick one over the other. Alas, you need both.

  4. The Cue Card says:

    Ps. I forgot to say: I really liked The Voyage of the Narwhal but I think I read it so long ago (1999?). I wouldn’t mind reading it again. Nice review.

  5. DoingDewey says:

    One of my favorite narrative nonfiction reads lately was The Kingdom of Ice, about real life arctic exploration, and I think this would be a great book to pair with it!

  6. Rebecca Foster says:

    I read Andrea Barrett’s linked short story collection, Archangel, early last year and thought it was wonderful. I’d be up for reading anything else she’s written. Other books of maritime adventure you might enjoy include English Passengers by Matthew Kneale and The Collector of Lost Things by Jeremy Page. I’m also looking forward to The North Water by Ian McGuire. Sara Wheeler writes very good nonfiction about the polar regions, while Everland by Rebecca Hunt is a great novel set in the Antarctic. In general Barrett’s style reminds me of A.S. Byatt’s (one of my very favorite writers).

  7. Lory @ Emerald City Book Review says:

    I never thought I would be so fascinated by a book about polar exploration when I picked up In the Kingdom of Ice. I could not stop reading! This sounds like a terrific complement, and now I want to read In the Heart of the Sea as well (although I might skip over some of the grisly parts).

    • Naomi says:

      Good to hear your praise of In the Kingdom of Ice – I’m itching to get to it!
      And, I didn’t realize until someone commented below that there is a movie coming out of Heart of the Sea. Another good reason to read it.

  8. Rick @ The Book-A-Week Project says:

    1) Erasmus: great name.
    2) This sounds fantastic! Plot line almost sounds straight out of a fantasy novel (aside from the Eskimo part), which is cool. I love historical fiction that almost doesn’t feel real. Very cool.
    3) You’ve picked up quite the following in my blogging absence. Holy hell! Great job, Naomi 🙂

    • Naomi says:

      Thanks, Rick! I’ve been having fun. 🙂
      This book is great – it has has explorers, ice, shipwrecks, possible cannibalism, near starvation and frostbite, and exploitation of human beings. Also art and scientific discussions.

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