Monday, May 19, 2014

The Essential Franklin Bookshelf (repost)

Recent Facebook discussions, along with a goodly percentage of my daily e-mail, center around which books about Sir John Franklin's 1845 expedition are the ones that an interested reader should begin with, and which are essential to further study. There are hundreds of possible candidates, and although little new has been learned about Franklin's fate over the past decade or so, that hasn't stopped new books from coming. And so I hope it will be useful for me to name the best of these books, in an informal manner -- I have no prizes or medals to hand out! -- in the hopes that those who are bitten, as I have been, by the Franklin "bug" will find what they need to steer themselves in the right direction.  And, having thought long and hard about the question, it seems to me that there are eight books -- just eight -- that I would wholeheartedly recommend.  Not all are easy to find, but every single one is worth the price of admission.  I give them here in the order in which I hope they might ideally be read, though knowing that the accidents of discovery may or may not correspond with such an ideal sequence.

First and foremost, anyone who cares at all about Franklin should get hold of the Arctic Press's facsimile edition of Richard Cyriax's study.  Was Cyriax an apologist for the Royal Navy? Are some of his conclusions mere 'conventional wisdom' that ought to be questioned?  Yes, surely, but his careful and meticulous study is filled with essential information, without which no meaningful speculation, and no sensible opposition to conventional wisdoms, can be made.

Secondly, I would recommend Roderic Owen's The Fate of Franklin.  Owen was a Franklin collateral descendant, and spent time with all kinds of sources which would be difficult, even in this Internet age, to pull together. The depth and breadth of his study make it worthwhile, despite a few minor errors and an annoying habit of not giving complete sources.

Third, I believe that David C. Woodman's Unravelling the Franklin Mystery: Inuit Testimony remains by far the most significant assessment of the Inuit accounts, which provide the best hope we will ever have of learning where to look, and what to look for.  Some of Woodman's ideas have evolved, and his second book Strangers Among Us would also be a worthy purchase, but without Unravelling there is little one could hope to do to truly understand the scope of Franklin searches, then or now.

Fourth, Dorothy Eber's Encounters on the Passage: The Inuit Meet the Explorers, is a very important supplement to Woodman's work.  It is remarkable to see how long the oral tradition endured, and Eber is an expert guide to a broader understanding of how such traditions work.

Fifth, I can't help but recommend Ken McGoogan's Fatal Passage.  McGoogan has an axe to grind, and whether or not one agrees with his arguments about the nature of Rae's achievements, there is not better tonic for a person suffering from what I like to call "Franklinitis" than to have one's views cast suddenly and energetically into the kind of sharp argumentative relief provided by this landmark book.

Sixth, of course, would be Beattie and Geiger's Frozen in Time or its reprints.  Despite the limits of what their studies disclose -- after all, the three graves on Beechey are too early to tell us much about the last days of Franklin's men -- but theirs is, without question, the most dramatic and vivid investigation into the Franklin expedition ever made.  No one who has looked into the eyes of John Torrington will ever forget the experience.

Seventh, my late friend Chauncey Loomis's Weird and Tragic Shores gives us the most memorable portrait we are ever likely to have of the method and the madness of the greatest of Franklin searchers, Charles Francis Hall of Ohio.

Eighth, and last, I cannot recommend John Wilson's biography of Sir John Franklin too highly.  It was written as a YA (Young Adult) book, but it is by far more eloquent, more captivating, and more succinct than any of the several recent "adult" Franklin biographies to be issued.  It's an excellent final course in a Franklin meal, and one which aptly pulls together the whole picture of the man.


  1. HI,
    Just stumbled upon your blog and am looking forward to reading about the Franklin Expedition. Do you have any information on Paul Boucher Sr (known as Lamalice)? I understand he was a guide. I am his great x5 grand daughter.

  2. Dear Gail,

    What an honor it is to hear from a descendant of Paul Boucher 'La Malice' -- I'm so glad you found this blog. These brave voyageurs, without whom Franklin's first overland expedition would not have been possible, and whom he treated with such indifference, are worthy of the highest degree of admiration. I'm afraid I do not have any detailed information about your ancestor in particular, but you should check out the resources mentioned in my post here about the voyageurs -- I hope some of the resources linked there may be of help to you!

  3. Thank you. I will look through the resources you mentioned.

  4. Dear Russell,

    I look forward to delving into your eight book suggestions. (I've read a couple already.) The mystery of Franklin's disappearance is so enduring, I wonder if we really want the search to end and to know what actually happened on this extraordinary voyage.



  5. Thanks for your comment, Season! And I agree, it would be a shame if there search were to end -- but I'd be willing to bet that, no matter what is found this summer, it won't completely resolve any of the many mysteries surrounding the expedition's demise.

  6. This list of quality Franklin expedition books is both highly accurate (I've managed to read half of them so far and they've been great, particularly Woodman's opus) and helpful, but I have to ask if there is ANY way to get a cheaper version of the Cyriax study that is your top recommendation. Sorry, but as interested as I am in this topic I could never justify buying that book rather than, say, a new (and pretty good) laptop or a giant HD TV! Unless the information in it is beyond amazing or the book is made of solid silver I just don't see the justification for spending nearly a $1000 for it!

    As for the other books on your list I haven't yet read, those I will try to post haste (assuming I can find copies - wish this stuff didn't go out of print so quickly). Many thanks for pointing them out!

  7. Hi Alan,

    Many thanks for your comment -- I'm glad the list has proven helpful to you!

    With regard to the Cyriax, the original 1939 edition is indeed scarce and expensive! However, it was reprinted in 1997, and this edition, though "limited," is not too hard to find and much more affordable -- there's a copy at abebooks right now for around £50. If you poke around you may be able to find a copy for even less -- good luck in your hunting!