Where fact meets fiction

Two news stories collided this week with a series of memories I have, none of which can be true because I was not alive in the 1840s, and I have never been to the Arctic. However, I wonder what a polygraph would show if I were asked, were you on one of the ships Terror or Erebus when they went in search of the North-west Passage?

One of those ships, Terror, has now been found, nowhere near where it was thought to have lain, and remarkably preserved, not crushed by decades of sea ice expanding, contracting and shifting.

Augustus Peterman stood at the dock at Greenhithe and shivered, not because he was cold: it was May, and the day was warm.

It was the sight of the ship that had set him trembling. The Terror towered over him, wide in the beam, with almost two-foot-square ribs rising out of the water. She was massive, breathtaking, beautiful.

This is the truncated introduction to the Terror in Elizabeth McGregor’s The Ice Child.

It is the story of Sir John Franklin and the expedition which ended in the loss of both ships and both crews, a mystery which is still the subject of speculation today. It is also a modern-day story, a son who is obsessed with finding out what happened to the ships and with the legacy of his father. When he disappears somewhere in the Arctic, another life depends on him being found and persuaded to return to England.

And it is the story of a polar bear. Just last week we heard the story of the Russian scientists whose base had been surrounded by polar bears, their normal source of food diminished because of the effects of global warming. The scientists’ dogs were killed by the bears, and it could have taken several more weeks until any assistance could reach them – in the end, it arrived soon enough. In the novel, we have a very different picture of the polar bear:

The great white bear lifted her head, narrowing her eyes against the driving Arctic snow. She looked back along the rubble ice to the cub that followed her, waiting for him in the white-on-white landscape.

The polar bear raised herself up on her hind legs and, after pausing only for a second, slammed her full nine-hundred-pound bodyweight down. With such force, she was able to break through into seal dens, stealing the pulls before they had ever seen the light, or break through ice to make swimming holes. But neither purpose was fulfilled here, in the white-out of the storm.

She could feel the wreck underneath her, on the sea bed below.

It smelt, even now, even after lying under the ice for a hundred and sixty years, like man. The wooden and iron bulk had left its indissoluble human mark – this sense of unrightness, a kind of dislocation in the frequencies.

Everything is linked in this novel. The polar bear, the Franklin expedition, the story of a present-day family, the fate of a young child.

Of the stories being told in this one book, for me, it was the one about the two ships and their crews which was what made it. We already knew that they would all die at some point, but it is the unfolding of the story that makes the narrative so compelling.

On the very day that they entered Lancaster Sounds, and hailed the whaler Enterprise as they passed, Gus saw a strange expression on Crozier’s face. Crozier hid it well as he came down and passed the boy. He even smiled then, and nodded at Gus, making a show of pulling at his cuffs and wrapping his coat closer around him. He went below, and Gus watched him, worried for the first time, more worried that he had ever been on any ship. For the look in the Captain’s eye had not been any confidence in God’s mercy and grace, or pleasure in the ship, or excitement at the conquests they were about to make. It was less complicated than any of that. It was fear.

That passing of the whaling ship was the last time either ships or crew were ever seen again.

There are various theories about what happened to the ships, and the novel goes with one which the author finds most compelling, based on the current research and what we know from what has been found in the 150 plus years since the expedition came to its end. Over forty expeditions were sent out to try to find out what had become of the original one, such was the Victorian obsession with the fate of the Franklin voyage.

Throughout the book, we have the ongoing mystery of what happened to the crews. Why, when they had provisions for several years, did one of them die of starvation just a few months into the expedition?

We are with the crews as they deal with the movements of ice all around them, have to decide which route to take when none is certain, as they burn coal too fast to feed the gigantic locomotives that break through the ice, and when crew members continue to die.

Everyone had something wrong. Some of the men had the first signs of scurvy – bleeds under the skin and their teeth affected. Most bore it with nonchalance; a few had even lost teeth, on previous voyages, to the illness. Others became breathless before they even had the swellings of the skin and the bruises.

With a few of the men the problem was not physical illness so much as the dark, the winter.

We alternate between hope, that a way out of the ice will be found, that daylight and warmer temperatures will arrive in time, and the sense of the gradual inevitability of their fate.

Worse than the helplessness of not knowing what to do with a body was the fear of what had killed him.

And yet, in the modern day part of the story, as our hopes for the crews of those ships gradually sink, our hope for the future of someone else starts to rise.

To find out what happens in the various sub-stories, you will just have to read the book. And then you will have a sense of what it was like to be on those ships, and the discovery of Terror might mean a lot more to you.



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