From the sublime title to its final page, Dominique Fortier’s novelistic rendering of the travails of the Franklin Expedition is subtle, stunning and compelling.
On the Proper Use of Stars (McClelland & Stewart, $29.99), which was shortlisted for the Governor’s General Award for Fiction, is now published in English through a wonderful translation by Sheila Fischman.
This debut novel draws on a multiplicity of voices to narrate the tale. John Franklin, his wife Lady Jane, and an omniscient narrator each present aspects of the story of this tragically failed mission that sailed through Arctic waters in search of the long-sought Northwest Passage.
But the gift of Fortier’s novel is the voice of Francis Crozier, commander of HMS Terror, one of the two ships in Franklin’s expedition.
Crozier has been called "the forgotten man of Arctic and Antarctic exploration." He accompanied James Ross on a four-year long Antarctic exploration before he joined Franklin’s 1845 mission.
Rooted in the actual journals and histories of the expedition, the novel is free to imagine the unknown happenings during this three-year endeavour.
Fortier creates a poetic and pragmatic man in the character of Crozier. An introverted man, slow to speak but quick to solve problems, Fortier imagines Crozier as someone whom Franklin humours but does not heed. Crozier follows Franklin’s orders but has grave doubts about many decisions.
Franklin, for his part, spurns Crozier’s ideas to prevent scurvy or his urgings to leave the prescribed copper communication cylinders with messages in various locales. In refusing to leave these communications, Franklin disobeyed "deliberately the express orders of the Admiralty." Crozier was more concerned that Franklin scorned "plain common sense."
In deflating Franklin’s reputation as a hero and great explorer (for subsequent history implies he was not), Fortier does not inflate the status of Crozier. He is portrayed as a compassionate man, but one who is capable of mistakes yet willing to admit to them whereas Franklin is not.
"To while away the boredom of the long winter months" during the first year the ships were trapped by ice, the crew enacted a "comedy" by Cyrano De Bergerac, Journey to the Moon. Fortier’s adaptation of the three-act play is inserted into the novel. A fitting allegory for Franklin’s expedition, the play illuminates the magnitude of how this voyage was perceived by the "Esquimaux" who encountered the ship and the society that spawned it.
One of Fortier’s most successful feats in the novel is to imagine the lives of Lady Jane Franklin and Sophia, Franklin’s niece, who resided with the couple most of her life.
In placing the lives of these two very different women in juxtaposition to the Arctic activities of Franklin and Crozier, Fortier deftly provides the context within which this expedition originated. The mores, customs, and the concerns of 19th-century British society demanded the Northwest Passage be found.
On the Proper Use of Stars is a debut that proves the felicitous talent of Fortier as a novelist. She is also a translator and in April of this year, her French translation of The Bishop’s Man by Linden MacIntyre will be published.
Richard Wagamese, a novelist and journalist, delivers a wondrous compilation of stories and recollections in his new book One Story, One Song (Douglas & McIntyre, $29.95).
The more than 50 pieces spring from the last few years in which Wagamese and his wife lived in the mountains close to Paul Lake, near Kamloops, B.C.
The collection is divided into "four sections, based on the principles … humility, trust, introspection and wisdom. Those four principles are the cardinal points on the Medicine Wheel and they represent essential qualities each person needs to cultivate to live a principled life," states the book’s introduction.
For those outside the aboriginal tradition, Wagamese’s writings may not be the first contact with the teachings of elders and the story-telling tradition. And, they may not be the first narratives encountered of the tragedies that have beset aboriginal people through government programs such as residential schools. But they may be the most powerful, the most graceful and elegiac. There is also great humour here.
The writings are deeply personal, wrought from Wagamese’s life and from the people, events, and circumstances that have shaped him.
Now 54, Wagamese has a joy that infuses his tales about the daily walks near his home, his love of the land and his continual work to live in accordance with his beliefs. There are also hard-hitting pieces that tackle social issues, environmental concerns, and human folly.
Wagamese is Ojibway but he was placed in foster care with non-native families before he was three and adopted when he was nine.
"I left my adoptive home at age sixteen. For years after that, I lived on the street, or in prison," he writes. One of the most intense selections is his narrative of living for "a month in a nativity scene" sleeping behind the hay bales each night.
When he was 24, Wagamese "rejoined (his) people."
"Whenever my family took me out on the land, a keen thrill ran through me."
It is this keen thrill that suffuses this collection. He writes of the bears that live near his home, the wolf paw print he spies one morning and the crows that manifest the traditional aboriginal legends.
Wagamese is not sentimental. His gratitude and deep pleasure is hard won. He does not flinch from the dark side of the stories. But behind the dark is the magic he has found.
"In the end, we bear away exactly what we bore in: a soul, a spirit, a song."
Wagamese’s work is his voice joining in the chorus of the One Story, One Song.
Mary Jo Anderson is a freelance writer who lives in Banff.