Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Accuracy -- and respect for Inuit culture -- matter

For some time now, I've been thinking about Paul Watson's book about the Franklin search, which has been published under the title Ice Ghosts. People have asked me about it, and as I'm generally reluctant to say unkind things about someone whose book might be seen as competing with mine, I've usually demurred. But now that the book is coming out in paperback, and is therefore likely to reach even more readers than before, I feel that it's my obligation to speak out.

As the founding editor of the Arctic Book Review, now in its nineteenth year, I've had occasion to read, and often to review, all the many new books about the Franklin expedition that have been published since 1999. My personal library has nearly every book ever written on the subject, which runs to well over a hundred volumes. Some are rather silly -- a book by a woman in Florida who had psychic "conversations" with Sir John and Lady Franklin; the late Jeffrey Blair Latta's The Franklin Conspiracy, which marks the far outpost of what one reviewer dubbed the "Franklin lunatic fringe"; or the small self-published leaflets of homespun enthusiasts.

But even among all these, Ice Ghosts stands out. It's one of those books that tries to beef up personal  reportage with a large dollop of historical background, and turn the author's journey into a combination whodunit and adventure yarn. It's an approach that can work well for a writer with a journalistic background, and there's nothing wrong with the basic idea. However, not all journalists are as good at handling historical narratives that stretch over centuries as they are at dramatically retelling events of the present, and that's the case with Mr. Watson. The sort of "potted history" he has written is big and dramatic on the surface, but wanting in the kind of substance that can only be gained by longer study and the consideration of multiple sources.

If these were the only issues with the book, though, I wouldn't feel as strongly as I do about it. Its inaccuracies may be due to mere carelessness, but it seems Mr. Watson's editor did no fact-checking. The errors are both numerous and substantive, such as having Lady Franklin pass through the Panama Canal (it wasn't completed until more than forty years after her death); James Fitzjames's letters to his sister-in-law are referred to as letters to his "wife" (he was unmarried); Parry's crucial 1819 expedition is missing from the book's chronology; winter and summer are confused with one another.  Any book, of course, had some errors -- cataloging them is not necessarily criticism -- but Watson's are so numerous as to erode the confidence of any well-informed reader in what he has to say. The author's tendency to drift into purple prose doesn't help matters, nor does his decision to personify the Arctic as female ("That was the plan. The Arctic, as she usually does, decided otherwise"). Yet these, though they will doubtless frustrate many readers, aren't the real problems with the book either.

As part of the story, Mr. Watson rightly wished to include the Inuit role in the search for Franklin's ships, and like many such, he decided to speak with Louie Kamookak, who's certainly the most important Inuk historian of all matters Franklin. Watson apparently interviewed him at length, and ultimately decided to make the results of the interview into a centerpiece of the book, dubbing Louie his "Inuk detective" and devoting most of two chapters to him. Unfortunately, Watson's tendency to expand and gussy-up the story got the better of him, and he ended up putting in material -- such his a story of Louie playing with a polar bear paw as an infant -- that was completely inaccurate, and untrue to Inuit culture generally. To make things worse, he never gave Mr. Kamookak a chance to look over what he'd written, so that by the time he saw it, the page proofs were already printed. Louie wrote a letter to Watson, asking him in the strongest terms to remove this material, and Watson flatly refused. It's an odd way to try to honor Inuit oral history by misrepresenting, and then insulting, one of its leading historians.

And then there's the matter of the discovery of HMS "Terror" in 2016. Watson, as many at the time will recall, published an exclusive news story with The Guardian about the find. Why was it exclusive? Well, because Watson had been given the story several days (at least) before the Arctic Research Foundation, whose vessel the Martin Bergmann made the discovery, had notified either its partners at Parks Canada (under whose permit they were operating) or the government. During that time -- nearly eight days in all -- the crew of the Bergmann first dispatched several cameras in a net (which snagged on the wreck, possibly damaging it, and was lost) and later, having doubled back to Cambridge Bay on the pretense of engine repairs, dispatched a ROV with which they made and edited a substantial video, at one point directing the ROV below decks and capturing imagery of a cook's pantry or storeroom.

It's shameful that the ARF failed to notify its partners for so long -- and it's criminal that they depoloyed a camera bag and a ROV on the wreck, since they had no permit to conduct such a search. In fact, the permit, issued to Parks, specifically excluded Terror Bay as a search site. At the behest of the Government of Nunavut, the RCMP launched a months-long investigation, which ended without charges being filed. Nevertheless, the language of the Nunavut Act is quite clear that to approach within 20 meters of an underwater site without a permit is forbidden. And, as the chronicler of this act, who was aware of it (and should have been aware that it was illegal), Watson is, I believe, complicit in it. And this is the most serious problem of all with his book: no one reading it will know anything about the above issues, as Watson simply omits them.

Watson's book, and the fact that it has been taken as somehow authoritative, has something in common with ARF's deployment of cameras and a ROV -- it actually damages the thing it claims to protect. Yet unlike those actions back in 2016, Ice Ghosts will continue its damage every time someone reads it, likely for years to come. It's especially frustrating, given that it appears under the imprint of W.W. Norton in the United States, a publisher whose textbook arm is known as authoritative, and which has a (deservedly) high reputation for quality publications.  And so, in the interests of placing the full facts in the hands of its present and potential readers, I've decided to speak out.


  1. Well said. I appreciate constructive criticism. Laughable that Lady Franklin passed through the Panama Canal forty years before it was completed.

  2. Lady Franklin was a remarkable woman, but I never knew she was that remarkable! His treatment of Kamookak amounts to appropriation, surely?