Reimagining the fate of a doomed Arctic expedition

The Sunday Business Post
By Kevin Power

In 1845, HMS Terror and HMS Erebus, with 129 souls aboard, departed England, bound for what Alfred Tennyson called “the white north”. Their goal was to traverse the last unnavigated waters of the Northwest Passage, a region that has still never been comprehensively surveyed.

The expedition’s leader was John Franklin, the semi-disgraced former Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen’s Land. Franklin’s ships never returned. Icebound in the frozen seas of the Victoria Strait, the crews of Erebus and Terror succumbed (it is generally supposed) to scurvy, lead poisoning, tuberculosis, and panic.

Thirty-two expeditions were dispatched to find them; none succeeded. Franklin’s Lost Expedition “haunted”, as Ed O’Loughlin puts it, “the Victorian imagination”. It still haunts ours. In 2014, the wreck of the Erebus was finally discovered at the bottom of the Queen Maud Gulf in the Arctic archipelago. But other mysteries remain.

O’Loughlin isn’t the first novelist to write about the enigmatic fate of the Franklin expedition. It also forms the basis of Thomas Keneally’s A Victim of the Aurora (1978) and of Dan Simmons’s The Terror (2007), both of which hint at supernatural explanations for Franklin’s failure.

O’Loughlin – an Irish-Canadian foreign correspondent and the author of Not Untrue And Not Unkind (2009) and Toploader (2011) – glances at the ghostly, too. Minds of Winter, his engrossing new novel, blends historical reconstruction with a contemporary tale of family secrets, with the Franklin mystery as a link between them.

O’Loughlin’s plotting is intricate. His research, attested to in a five-page postscript, has been omnivorous. His novel ranges across geography and history to assemble a gripping meditation on the polar regions, and what they have meant to the various “minds of winter” who have encountered them.

The title comes from Wallace Stevens’s poem The Snowman (1921), a typically gnomic reflection on the metaphysics of winter. Stevens’s snowman, “nothing himself”, beholds, in the frozen landscape, “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.”

“Nothing”, of course, is only of so much use to a novelist, and O’Loughlin’s historically disparate characters, in fact, stumble across a great many somethings on their polar adventures.
In the present, Nelson Nilsson has arrived in Tuktoyaktuk, the last outpost of civilisation in the wilderness of the Canadian Northern Territories.

His brother Bert, a geographer, has disappeared, leaving behind a pile of research that seems to connect the Franklin expedition with the fate of Group Captain Hugh Morgan, an English soldier who helped to build the Distant Early Warning system during the Cold War.

In Tuktoyaktuk, searching for his brother, Nelson bumps into Fay Morgan, Hugh’s granddaughter, who is searching for her own family secrets, and who seems to know more than she’s saying about a mysterious timepiece – in fact, John Franklin’s maritime chronometer, which somehow survived the wreckage of Erebus and Terror and became a Morgan family heirloom (this part of O’Loughlin’s narrative is based on a true story).

While Nelson and Fay conduct their searches, O’Loughlin weaves a tissue of interlocking historical flashbacks, recreating, inter alia, an expedition to locate the missing ships (inspired by a child’s map drawn at the suggestion of a ghost, and containing the haunting legend “A ship with no men in it”), and ventriloquising an Esquimaux tribesman who helped in another failed search.  Across a virtuoso range of voices and settings, O’Loughlin traces the afterlife of the lost expedition.

Each interlude is steeped in, or shadowed by, the “fossilised light” of the polar regions. Throughout, O’Loughlin’s novelistic gifts are impressively displayed: he can recreate a formal dance aboard a 19th-century bomb ship as convincingly as he can summon the bewilderment and despair of men lost in unknown tracts of ice and snow, forced to feed their dead horses to their sledge dogs to keep them alive.

The narrative intricacy of Minds of Winter occasionally threatens to become snarled, as it were, in its own rigging. But that’s one of the risks when you write a formidably ambitious book. With each novel, O’Loughlin is expanding his interests and his imaginative grasp – the first sign of a genuinely talented writer. He is rapidly becoming one of the most interesting novelists currently at work.

August 21, 2016
The Sunday Business Post

© Ed O’Loughlin – Writer and Journalist