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Fatal Passage:The Story of John Rae, the Arctic Hero that Time Forgot

Reviewed: August 3, 2003
By: Ken McGoogan
Publisher: Carroll & Graf
320 pages, $26.00

Fatal Passage is an interesting example of how a book may select its own topic and demand to be written, for this fine biography is certainly not the book Ken McGoogan intended to write when he set out on his writing sabbatical in England. It was to have been a novel, and John Rae was to have been a feature of it, but the more he learned about the accomplished Orkney man, the more McGoogan became convinced that there was a terrible historical wrong that needed righting, and the more the project veered in the direction it finally took, ending with McGoogan erecting his own memorial to his subject on the tundra of the Boothia Peninsula, just across the strait that bears the explorer’s name.

John Rae is not totally unknown to history. Like McGoogan I came across his name first in the works of Peter C. Newman (Company of Adventurers) and Pierre Berton (The Arctic Grail). They were primarily concerned with establishing his place in the location of the last, fatal Franklin expedition.  Ironically, it seems probable that, if he had not been so successful in that endeavour, he might have been more likely to have received credit for his second coup, the location of the actual, navigable Northwest Passage, the route that would actually be used when the roof of the world was finally crossed by sea.

Like many a Hudson’s Bay man, Rae hailed from the Orkney Islands, where he learned much about hunting, shooting and sailing as a youngster. He trained as a doctor, but shipped out to the fur trading lands of northern British North America in 1833. Except for brief absences he remained in the north until 1854. During that time he set new company records for land based exploration and for winter survival, learning to travel as the Inuit did, adapting their methods of dog handling, snowshoeing and snow house building to his own needs as a company explorer and trader.

The expert boat designer, hunter, expedition planner and outdoorsman revealed in the first half of McGoogan’s book experienced few setbacks in his career. He was open minded about the worth of the native people, whether Esquimaux or Indian (as they were labelled in those days) and judged a person by the worth of his or her work rather than skin colour. His willingness to accept the evidence and testimony of the area’s natives at face value was, it was almost inevitable, one of the things that was used against him later in life when his enemies kept him from the recognition that McGoogan seems to establish he ought to have received.

Rae’s problems were two-fold. He was not adept at self-promotion and not much of a prose stylist. Secondly, He had some very powerful enemies, led by the extremely capable Lady Franklin.

Rae’s discovery of the potentially ice-free passage that now bears his name undercut her late husband’s claim to posthumous fame. Franklin’s final Arctic expedition may have died to the man, but Lady Jane fought to maintain the myth (reflected even today in songs like Stan Rogers’ “Northwest Passage”) that Sir John had found what he went looking for prior to dying.

Worse still, Lady Jane and all of Victorian England were repulsed by the notion (eventually proved true) that some members of the expedition had resorted to cannibalising the bodies of their dead comrades in order to sustain their own lives when all other supplies gave out. Rae had seen it happen before. He was shocked but not incredulous when the evidence brought to him by the Inuit suggested it had happened again.

Lady Jane’s haigiographic campaign to confer glories on her husband and, by extension, on herself as his widow. denied Rae the recognition it appears he rightly deserved. Once one has red this story it comes as a shock to realize that he is the only major British explorer of the 19th century who was not knighted for his contributions to the extension of the Empire.

McGoogan has just about stopped apologising for his enthusiasm in championing Rae’s accomplishments. Normally an historian might be expected to present a more balanced view of his subject. By the time he had done all his research, McGoogan had evidently decided that the scales of justice had been tipped too far in one direction for over a century and it was time that someone leaned heavily in the other direction.

The book works beautifully. Part one takes us through Rae’s life an accomplishments with barely a hint of how controversial the latter would become later. We see a what McGoogan will later call a “consummate traveller” apply his physical skills and considerable intelligence to a tough job and make it look like anyone ought to have been able to do it, in spite of our certain knowledge that there were many who cold not. 

Part two deals with the aftermath of Rae’s journeys. the attacks on his character and veracity, the way in which he continued to do his best in spite of all that well into his seventies.

Fatal Passage is an exciting piece of creative non-fiction, a category in which some of the conventions of fiction writing are used to enliven the historical record. Small wonder it has been published world wide and has gained Ken McGoogan so many honours (yet another award just this last winter).

Ken was a welcome guest at the Berton House Writers’ Retreat in the fall of 2002, where he spent his time working on his next project, a biography of an even earlier explorer, Samuel Hearne. He wouldn’t say much about it when I interviewed him then, other than to guarantee that we were in for a few surprises. The book is due out this fall. I’m looking forward to it.

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