The Voyage of the Narwhalby Andrea Barrett
"A luminous work of historical fiction that explores the far reaches of the Arctic and of men's souls." Denver PostCapturing a crucial moment in the history of explorationthe mid-nineteenth century romance with the ArcticAndrea Barrett's compelling novel tells the story of a fateful expedition. Through the eyes of the ship's scholar-naturalist,
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"A luminous work of historical fiction that explores the far reaches of the Arctic and of men's souls." Denver PostCapturing a crucial moment in the history of explorationthe mid-nineteenth century romance with the ArcticAndrea Barrett's compelling novel tells the story of a fateful expedition. Through the eyes of the ship's scholar-naturalist, Erasmus Darwin Wells, we encounter the Narwhal's crew, its commander, and the far-north culture of the Esquimaux. In counterpoint, we meet the women left behind in Philadelphia, explorers only in imagination. Together, those who travel and those who stay weave a web of myth and mystery, finally discovering what they had not sought, the secrets of their own hearts.
The year is 1855, a time when "Arctic hysteria," engendered by the published accounts of explorers such as John Rae, Charles Wilkes, John Richardson, and Elisha Kent Kane, has captured the popular imagination on both sides of the Atlantic. The largest and most elaborately provisioned Arctic expedition, led by Sir John Franklin of England, has disappeared without a trace, and the fate of Franklin, his two ships, and 500-man crew has become an international concern. Rescue parties have been hastily organized, only to go missing themselves.
Barrett's protagonist is the introspective Erasmus Darwin Wells, son of a prosperous Philadelphia engraver and amateur naturalist. From an early age, Erasmus and his similarly monikered brothers, Copernicus, Linnaeus, and Humbolt, are encouraged to share in their father's scholarly enthusiasms. Thoroughly schooled in the scientific method, Erasmus often puzzles over his father's fondness for Pliny the Elder's highly subjective record of the divergent races of man:
On summer evenings, down by the creek, Mr. Wells had read Pliny's Natural History to his sons. Pliny the Elder had died of his scientific curiosity, he'd said; the fumes of Vesuvius had choked him when he'd lingered to watch the smoke and lava. But before that he'd compiled a remarkable collection of what he'd believed to be facts. Some true, some false -- but even the false still useful for the beauty with which they were expressed, and for what they said about the ways men conceived of each other, and of the world.
Erasmus gradually comes to understand that through these stories "in which truth and falsehood are mingled like the minerals in granite," he has been "taught to understand that anything you can imagine is possible."
As a young man, Erasmus joins Charles Wilkes's South-Sea Exploring Expedition as a "scientific." But the disastrous three-year voyage and Wilkes's subsequent court-martial tinge Erasmus's professional career and private life with the indelible mark of failure. Now, at the age of 40, he once again finds himself playing a supporting role to another man's vaulting ambitions. Zechariah Voorhees, a longtime friend of the Wells family who is betrothed to Erasmus's sister, Lavinia, is the latest to mount an expedition to learn Franklin's fate. At Lavinia's urging, Erasmus masters his reluctance to join a mission that by right of age and experience he should command, and accepts a commission as Zeke's right-hand man.
After months of careful planning and provisioning, the Narwhal and its 15-man crew embarks from Philadelphia in June. During the weeks at sea, Erasmus cultivates a rare friendship with the ship's Swedish surgeon, Dr. Boerhaeve. Though Boerhaeve is an admirer of Thoreau and espouses the curious creationist views of Louis Agassis, and Erasmus, true to his namesake, is a staunch Darwinist, the two lifelong bachelors recognize each other as intellectual equals who share the desire to better understand the world through exploration. With each new landfall, the two scientists hastily collect and classify specimens of flora and fauna, until they guiltily begin to wish that the expedition's objective could be abandoned in favor of observing this "amazing place and its creatures."
As the brief Arctic summer draws to a close without any sign of Franklin or his men, tension mounts between Zeke, the ship's officers, and the crew. The accidental death of one of the men delays the departure of the Narwhal long enough for relics of the Franklin expedition to be found among a nearby tribe of Esquimaux, and Zeke arrogantly proclaims the "hand of God" in the discoveries. Privately, Erasmus and Boerhaeve are less eager to accept the death of a comrade as evidence of divine intervention. Moreover, the Narwhal now finds her homeward path blocked by ice at every turn, and the crew is forced to prepare to winter over.
During the cramped confinement of the long, dark Arctic winter, scurvy, depression, and the incremental breakdown of the chain of command take their toll. One by one, crew members are sacrificed to Zeke's megalomaniacal ambition to put his name on the map; not even the good Dr. Boerhaeve is spared. The tragically unnecessary death of his first and only friend at last awakens Erasmus to his duty to the men of the expedition, and when Zeke marches off alone in search of the inland polar sea rumored to lie beyond the ice pack and fails to return, Erasmus reluctantly abandons the icebound ship and leads the crew to safety. On the voyage home, Erasmus, crippled by frostbite and devastated by the loss of the Narwhal's discoveries, overhears a whaling captain contemptuously refer to his breed of gentleman explorers as ineffectual "discovery men." And in one of Dr. Boerhaeve's last journal entries, he finds a ghostly, eloquent echo of this rebuke:
What was the meaning of that South-Sea Exploring Expedition, with all its parade and expense, but an indirect recognition of the fact, that there are continents and seas in the moral world, to which every man is an isthmus or an inlet, yet unexplored by him, but that it is easier to sail many thousand miles through cold and storm and cannibals, in a government ship, with five hundred men and boys to assist one, than it is explain the private sea, the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean of one's being alone.
The doomed expedition is a compelling, multileveled story, yet the voyage itself is but a prelude to the moral drama still to unfold. Fully a third of the book takes place after Erasmus returns to Philadelphia. Within the fabric of Zeke and Erasmus's tale, Barrett has woven the stories of the two women who await their return -- Lavinia, who measures her worth solely in relation to her love for Zeke, and her hired companion, Alexandra, who compares the narrow choices open to her with the opportunities afforded men, and muses, "Why can't my life be larger?" Alexandra's situation is reminiscent of Barrett's short story "Rare Bird," which portrays the smothering paternalism of the 18th century through the eyes and emotions of a fiercely intelligent amateur naturalist who, like the elusive swallows she studies, escapes captivity for more hospitable climes. Here, too, are the vividly imagined voices of the "uncivilized" Esquimaux who endure the clumsy intrusion of the kabloonas -- white men -- into their delicately ordered society, only to suffer captivity and humiliation in return for their hospitality.
In The Voyage Of The Narwhal, Andrea Barrett portrays the breathless mood of a nation at odds with itself, distracted for a brief, glorious moment from the bitter rivalries that will soon erupt in a paroxysm of war. Her stunning synthesis of period historical detail and the natural sciences results in a voice that is at once passionate, lucid, and uniquely her own. Through the juxtaposition of stark contrasts and violent extremes, Barrett questions our expectations of the heroic and, ultimately, reaffirms our faith in the endurance of the human spirit.
Barrett's story finds its impetus in one of the great enigmas of history, the disappearance of the British explorer Sir John Franklin and all of his crew on a voyage to discover the Northwest Passage. In the 1850s, the case was an international cause célèbre, and the efforts to find Franklin and his party on subsequent excursions led to as many adventures and mishaps as originally befell Franklin. Newspapers and magazines went wild over the story. Franklin was a popular hero whose portrait hung in countless middle-class drawing rooms, and any man who managed to find him would have been assured of fame and glory. Against this factual backdrop, Barrett has created Erasmus Darwin Wells, a Philadelphia naturalist whose previous explorations around the world have ended in shame and discredit, and Erasmus' protégé Zechariah Vorhees, called "Zeke," who is engaged to Erasmus' sister and who leads the Narwhal on a quest for Franklin through the Arctic. Zeke's goal, as Erasmus discovers to his cost, is not just to find the Franklin party but to be the Man Who Did.
Erasmus has his own kind of glory in mind -- "northern sights to parallel," "discoveries in natural history that might prove extraordinarily important" -- but ego wins out in all directions.On the adventurers' return, the truth about what happened on the Narwhal is the first and lasting casualty.
"Why is it so difficult to capture what was there?" Erasmus wonders. "I wish I could show it as through a fan of eyes. Widening out from my single perspective to several viewpoints, then many, so the whole picture might appear and not just my version of it. As if I weren't there." Barrett tells her story through multiple voices -- Erasmus, Zeke, their colleagues, the crew and the women waiting patiently at home -- but Voyage of the Narwhal is her own creation, marvelously imagined and beautifully told. A first-rate novel and a welcome, old-fashioned read. -- Salon
The New York Times
New York Times Book Review
In Philadelphia in 1855, naturalist Erasmus Darwin Wells -- 40, unmarried and gripped by a despondent realization that his life is a failure -- sees a last chance to make his reputation as he prepares to accompany his future brother-in-law, Zechariah Voorhees, on a voyage to the arctic in search of Sir John Franklin's lost expedition. At 26, Zeke bristles with charisma, and a megalomaniacal sense of his own destiny. But loyal, naive Erasmus doesn't grasp the scope of Zeke's recklessness and blind ambition until Zeke has committed a series of colossal and fatal blunders, subjecting his men to unspeakable privation, hunger, cold and danger. When the crew finally refuses to accompany Zeke on a foolhardy mission and he goes off alone and does not return on schedule, Erasmus is placed in an exquisite dilemma: whether to force the men to gamble on Zeke's unlikely survival as the ice closes in for a second winter, or -- as he knows he must do -- abandon the ship and begin a harrowing trek over land and water in hope of rescue. Erasmus' eventual return home, where he is scorned by journalists, who accuse him of cowardice, and by his sister, Lavinia, who is bereft of her hopes of marriage, is underscored by further ironies so potent that readers will finish the last third of the book in a fever of anticipation and dread.
As Barrett describes the provisioning of the Narwhal, the flora and fauna of the arctic, the turbulent seas and breathtaking scenery, the plot seems slow to develop. But her careful depiction of all the characters -- a humane ship's doctor; a cook who survived the Irish famine; and, back in Philadelphia, spirited Alexandra Copeland, whose presence in the Wells household as companion to Lavinia eventually leads to an affecting love story -- deepens the narrative texture.
Meanwhile, the extremes of both human behavior and nature -- looming icebergs, fatal accidents, episodes of heroism, grisly discoveries of lost ships and dead men, the inexorable tyranny of winter darkness -- are described with an accuracy that make one forget that this is not a memoir but a work of the imagination. (PW best book of 1998)
The narrative of the Narwhal's exhausting, repetitive odyssey is artfully varied by Barrett's sympathetic concentration on Erasmus' mixture of stoic dutifulness and excruciating self-doubt, and by her vivid portrayals of such secondary characters as ship's cook Ned Kynd (a survivor of Ireland's Potato Famine), its surgeon (and Erasmus' revered soulmate) Jan Boerhaave, Lavinia's paid 'companion' Alexandra Coleman (instrumental in Erasmus' eventual recall to life), and the 'Arctic Highlanders,' whose inability to endure 'civilization' rewrites all the explorers' and scientists' theories. Zeke himselfa megalomaniac with striking resemblances to Melville's Ahabis the fulcrum on which Barrett springs a dazzling surprise that gives herdisturbing climactic pages an almost symphonic richness. The intellectual range exhibited by this magnificent novel places its author in the rarefied company of great contemporary encyclopedic writers like Pynchon, Gaddis, and Harry Mulisch.
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I try in vain to be persuaded that the pole is the seat of frost and desolation; it ever presents itself to my imagination as the region of beauty and delight. There ... the sun is for ever visible; its broad disk just skirting the horizon, and diffusing a perpetual splendor. There ... snow and frost are banished; and, sailing over a calm sea, we may be wafted to a land surpassing in wonders and in beauty every region hitherto discovered on the habitable globe ... What may not be expected in a country of eternal light?
Delaware River while the sun beat on his shoulders. A mild breeze, the smells of tar and copper. A few yards away the Narwhal loomed, but he was looking instead at the partial reflection trapped between hull and pilings. The way the planks wavered, the railing bent, the boom appeared then disappeared; the way the image filled the surface without concealing the complicated life below. He saw, beneath the transparent shadow, what his father had taught him to see: the schools of minnows, the eels and algae, the mussels burrowing into the silt; the diatoms and desmids and insect larvae sweeping past hydrazoans and infant snails. The oyster, his father once said, is impregnated by the dew; the pregnant shells give birth to pearls conceived from the sky. If the dew is pure, the pearls are brilliant; if cloudy, the pearls are dull. Far above him, but mirrored as well, long strands of cloud moved one way and gliding gulls another.
fleet. Everyone headed somewhere, Erasmus thought. England, Africa, California; stony islands alive with seals; the coast of Florida. Yet no one, among all those travelers, who might offer him advice. He turned back to his work. Where was this mound of supplies to go? An untidy package yielded, beneath its waterproof wrappings, a dozen plum puddings that brought him near to tears. Each time he arranged part of the hold more of these parcels appeared: a crate of damson plums in syrup from an old woman in Conshohocken who'd read about their voyage in the newspaper and wanted to contribute her bit. A case of brandy from a Wilmington banker, volumes of Thackeray from a schoolmaster in Doylestown, heaps of hand-knitted socks. His hands bristled with lists, each only partly checked-off: never mind those puddings, he thought. Where were the last two hundred pounds of pemmican? How had half the meat biscuit been stowed with the candles and the lamp oil? And where were the last members of the crew? In his pocket he had another list, the final roster:
ZECHARIAH VOORHEES, Commander AMOS TYLER, Sailing Master
COLIN TAGLIABEAU, First Officer GEORGE FRANCIS, Second Officer
JAN BOERHAAVE, Surgeon ERASMUS D. WELLS, Naturalist
and Mr. Francis, who together would have charge of the ship's daily operations, were experienced whaling men. Dr. Boerhaave had a medical degree from Edinburgh; Schuessele had been cook for a New York packet line; Forbes was an Ohio farm boy who'd never been to sea, but who could fashion anything from a few odd scraps of wood. Of the seven unevenly trained seamen, Bond had reported for duty drunk, and Hruska and Hamilton were still missing.
Erasmus feared, for him to fail. He was forty years old and had a history of failure; he'd sailed, when hardly more than a boy, on a voyage so thwarted it became a national joke. Since then his life's work had come to almost nothing. No wife, no children, no truly close friends; a sister in a difficult situation. What he had now was this pile of goods, and a second chance.
up to see Zeke hanging from the rigging like a flag. His long arms were stretched above a thatch of golden hair; as he laughed his teeth were gleaming in his mouth; he was twenty-six and made Erasmus feel like a fossil. Everything about this moment was tied to Zeke. The hermaphrodite brig about to become their home had once been part of Zeke's family's packet line; with his father's money, Zeke had ordered oak sheathing spiked to her sides as protection against the ice, iron plates wrapped around her bows, tarred felt layered between the double-planked decks. In charge of the expedition--and hence, Erasmus reminded himself, of him--Zeke had chosen Erasmus to gather the equipment and stores surrounding him now in such bewildering heaps.
malt, knives and needles for barter with the Esquimaux, guns and ammunition, coal and wood, tents and cooking lamps and woolen clothing, buffalo skins, a library, enough wooden boards to house over the deck in an emergency. And what about the spirit thermometers, or the four chronometers, the microscope, and all the stores for his specimens: spirits of wine, loose gauze, prenumbered labels and glass jars, arsenical soap for preserving bird skins, camphor and pillboxes for preserving insects, dissecting scissors, watch glasses, pins, string, glass tubes and sealing wax, bungs and soaked bladders, brain hooks and blowpipes and egg drills, a sweeping net ... too many-things.
from the Utah mountains. Just then he would have given anything for an hour's conversation with Copernicus, who understood what it meant to leave a life. But Copernicus was gone, still, again, and the wolf skins were handsome, but where would they fit? The sledges, specially constructed after Zeke's own design, had arrived two weeks late and wouldn't fit into the space Erasmus had planned for them; and he couldn't arrange the scientific equipment in any reasonable way. Every inch of the cabin was full, and they were not yet in it.
one hand for a second, and then dropped lightly to the deck. Soon he joined Erasmus among the wharf's clutter, moving the theodolite and uncovering a crate of onions. "These look nice," he said. "Do we have enough?"
walked up with the news that their cook had deserted. He'd last been seen two days earlier, Mr. Tagliabeau reported. In the company of a red-headed woman who'd been haunting the docks.
hussy," he said. "What a flashing eye she had! But that it should be Schuessele who got her, with that monstrous beard of his..."
through the masts. "We're leaving in three days!" he shouted. Later he'd remember this display with embarrassment. "Three days. Where are we going to find another cook?"
of cooks. Mr. Tagliabeau, if you'd be so kind as to take a small recruiting tour among the taverns..."
dressed in Lincoln-green frock coats, white pantaloons, and straw hats trailing black ostrich feathers come dancing up the wharf. The United Toxophilites, Erasmus saw, making a surprise farewell to Zeke. The sight made him groan. Once he'd been part of this group of archers; once this had all seemed charming. Resurrecting the old sport of archery, flourishing the arrows retrieved from those first, magical trips to the Plains--as a boy, he'd participated in a meet that drew two thousand guests. But he'd lost his taste for such diversions after the Exploring Expedition, and he'd let his association with the Toxies lapse. Zeke, though, was part of the new young crowd that had taken over the club.
other ships stared. "Voorhees! Voorhees!"
length of the wharf, and formed a circle around him. Erasmus received courteous nods but no recognition. He listened to the mocking, high-spirited speeches, which likened Zeke to a great Indian chief setting off on a buffalo hunt. One youngster with a shock of red hair presented Zeke with a chalice; an elflike boy offered a patent-leather belt from which dangled a grease box and a tassel. Zeke accepted his gifts with a smile and a handshake, thanking each man by name and showing the poise that had made Erasmus's sister call him a natural leader.
he eyed the grease box. A few years of sailing from Philadelphia to Dublin and Hull on the ships of his father's packet line, investigating currents and ocean creatures, although often, as he'd admitted to Erasmus, he'd been too seasick to work. Other than that all his learning came from books. As a boy he'd insinuated his way into Erasmus's family, through their fathers' friendship and an interest in natural history. Now they were further bound by Lavinia. But that Erasmus should be standing in Zeke's shadow, setting off for the arctic under the command of this untried youth--again he was amazed by his decision.
through the circle of green-coated men, seized Erasmus's arm, and drew him into the center. "I couldn't do this without Erasmus Darwin Wells," he cried. "Three cheers for our chief naturalist, my right hand!"
mixed with disdain; as if Zeke wanted to emulate him, but without his flaws. But exactly this grudging caution had stranded him alone in midlife, and he pushed the thought aside. When the Toxies presented their green-and-gold pennant, he grasped the end marked with a merry archer and smiled at Zeke. Zeke made a speech of thanks; Erasmus made a shorter one, not mentioning that he'd known the club's founders or that he'd learned to shoot a bow when some of these men were still children. As he spoke he saw Captain Tyler hanging over the Narwhal's rail, gazing curiously at them. His face, Erasmus thought, was the size and color of a ham.
Erasmus was once more alone. He folded the pennant and tucked it into the wolf skins. Then he reconsidered the stowing of the sledges: back to front in a line down the center of the hold? or piled in a tight tower near the bow? He worked quietly for an hour, pushing down his worries by the repeated checking of items against his lists. Mr. Tagliabeau interrupted him, returning to the wharf in the company of a fresh-faced, dark-haired, blue-eyed boy.
Zeke hopped down to investigate. After making introductions all around, Mr. Tagliabeau added, "Ned would like to join our expedition."
Ned over. "You've had experience cooking?"
the rough area by the wharves, Erasmus noted his heavy Irish accent.
have enjoyed them. But I believe I would have, if I'd had work and meals and a place to sleep. I enjoyed being on deck very much. I like to watch the birds and fish."
capable of that?"
three or four times that number. I was at a logging camp in the Adirondacks for some time, before I made my way to this city. Loggers are hungry men."
he can surely feed us."
seamen. They can be a bit rough."
and say your good-byes, we leave in three days." Off he went, bounding down the wharf like an antelope.
shoes, came to join the expedition. Later Erasmus would think many times how little might have steered Ned away. Mr. Tagliabeau might not have bumped into him beneath the chandler's awning; the Toxies' ostrich-feathered hats might have spooked him had he arrived but a few minutes earlier; Zeke might not have been there to interview him had he arrive but a little later. Any small coincidence might have done.
THAT NIGHT ERASMUS was sleepless again. In the Repository, his family's little natural history museum, he rose and paced the floors and tried to understand what he'd been doing. For twelve years he'd been camped out here, his world contracted to display cabinets stuffed with dead animals, boxes of seeds and trays of fossils, the occasional stray beam of light shining through the windows like a message from another planet. Framed engravings of eminent naturalists leaned down from the bookshelves, watching benignly as he bent to work that wasn't work, and went nowhere. Who could understand that life? Or how he'd decided, finally, to leave it?
more than a decade. Everything showed his father's hand, from the carved ferns on the moldings to his own name. He was Erasmus Darwin for the British naturalist, grandfather to the young man who'd set off on the Beagle; his brothers were named after Copernicus, Linnaeus, and Alexander von Humboldt. Four boys gaping up at their father like nestlings waiting for worms. An engraver and printer by trade, Frank Wells's passion had been natural history and his truest friends the Peales and the Bartrams, Thomas Nuttall and Thomas Say, Audubon of the beautiful birds and poor peculiar Rafinesque, who'd died in a garret downtown.
Pliny's Natural History to his sons. Pliny the Elder had died of his scientific curiosity, he'd said; the fumes of Vesuvius had choked him when he'd lingered to watch the smoke and lava. But before that he'd compiled a remarkable collection of what he'd believed to be facts. Some true, some false--but even the false still useful for the beauty with which they were expressed, and for what they said about the ways men conceived of each other, and of the world. Sometimes pacing, sometimes sitting on a tuft of grass, Erasmus's father had passed down Pliny's descriptions of extraordinary peoples living beyond the edge of the known. A race of nomads with legs like snakes; a race of forest dwellers running swiftly on feet pointed backward; a single-legged race who move by hopping and then rest by lying on their backs and raising their singular feet above their heads, like small umbrellas. Stories, not science--but useful as a way of thinking about the great variety and mutability of human nature. How easily, he'd said, might we not exist at all. How easily might we be transformed into something wholly different.
the imagination and the perils of not observing the world directly. Yet although he was a great collector of explorers' tales he'd traveled very little himself; Erasmus had never known what his father would most like to have seen. As a counterpoint to Pliny he'd offered his sons the living, breathing science of his friends. They'd helped design the Repository and delighted Erasmus and his brothers with accounts of their travels. When Lavinia was born, they'd named her after her dying mother and tried to distract their friend from his grief with bones and feathers.
floor. He stopped at a wooden case holding trays of fossil teeth. Beneath the third tray was a false bottom, which only he knew about; in the secret space below the molars was a woman's black calf walking boot. His mother's; once he'd had a pair. Before the servants took her clothes away, to be given piece by piece to the poor, he'd stolen the boots she'd worn most often. For years he'd hidden them in his room, sometimes running his hands up the buttons as another boy might have fingered a rosary. Later, about to leave on his ill-fated first trip, he'd given Lavinia the left boot after swearing her to secrecy. This other he'd buried. Had it always been so small? The sole was hardly longer than his hand, the leather was cracking, the buttons loose. Where Lavinia's was he had no idea.
the Repository, a small income, and the care of Lavinia until she married. Which meant, he thought, that he'd inherited all the responsibility and none of the freedom or even the solid work. Was it his fault he hadn't known what to do? The family firm had gone to his middle brothers, who'd settled side by side downtown, within walking distance of their work: two moons, circling a planet that didn't interest him. Meanwhile Copernicus had headed west as soon as he received his share of the estate. Out there, among the Indians, he painted buffalo hunts and vast landscapes while Erasmus and Lavinia, left behind, leaned against each other in his absence.
been shown at the Academy of Fine Arts. And sometimes--when he remembered, when he could be bothered--he sent packets of seeds, shaken from random plants that had caught his eye. His afterthoughts, which had become Erasmus's chief occupation. Erasmus had examined, classified, labeled, cataloged, added them to his lists. He filed them in tall wooden towers of tiny drawers, alongside the seeds his father's friends had brought back from China and the Yucatan and the Malay Archipelago, and those he'd salvaged--stolen, really--from the collections of the Exploring Expedition. When his eyes grew strained and his skin felt moldy, he retreated out back, between the house and the river and behind the Repository, planting samples in oblong plots and noting every characteristic of the seedlings.
to bed. In Africa, his father had said, are a tribe of people who have no heads, but have mouths and eyes attached to their chests. Sleep eluded him yet again and his lists bobbed behind his lids. In Germantown and along the Wissahickon, people sent him socks and marmalade and then dreamed of this expedition. Vicarious travelers, sleeping while he could not and conjuring up a generic exotic land. Lavinia had friends like this, for whom Darwin's Tierra del Fuego and Cook's Tahiti had merged with Parry's Igloolik and d'Urville's Antarctica until a place arose in which ice cliffs coexisted with acres of pampas, through which Tongan savages chased ostriches chasing camels. Those people sent six candles encased in brown paper but couldn't keep north and south straight in their minds, placing penguins and Esquimaux in the same confused ice and pleating a continent into a frozen sea.
the planning and buying and stowing but the months sitting idly on the decks of a ship, the long stretches when nothing happened except that one's ties to home were imperceptibly dissolved and one became a stranger to one's life. No one knew how frightened he was, or the mental lists he made of all he dreaded. Ridiculous things, ignoble things. His bunk would be too short or too narrow or damp or drafty; his comrades would snore or twitch or moan; he'd be overcome by longing for women; he'd never sleep. Sleepless, he would grow short-tempered; short-tempered, he'd say something wrong to Zeke and make an enemy. The coarse food would upset his stomach and dyspepsia would upset his brain; what if he forgot how to think? His hands would be cold, they were always cold; he'd slice a specimen or stab himself. His joints would ache, his back would hurt, they'd run out of coffee, on which he relied; a storm would snap the masts in half, a whale would ram the ship. They'd get lost, they'd find nothing, they'd fail.
On his earlier voyage this had been his constant, sometimes sole, companion, but tonight it let him down. Pen, inkpot, words on white paper; an inkstain on his thumb. He couldn't convey clearly the scene at the wharf. He gazed at his first messy attempt and then added:
Why is it so difficult simply to capture what was there? That old problem of trying to show things both sequentially, and simultaneously. If I drew that scene I'd show everything happening all at once, everyone present and every place visible, from the bottom of the river to the clouds. But when I describe it in words one thing follows another and everything's shaped by my single pair of eyes, my single voice. I wish I could show it as if through a fan of eyes. Widening out from my single perspective to several viewpoints, then many, so the whole picture might appear and not just my version of it. As if I weren't there. The river as the fish saw it, the ship as it looked to the men, Zeke as he looked to young Ned Kynd, the Toxies as they appeared to Captain Tyler: all those things, at once. So someone else might experience those hours for himself.
these pages meant only for his own eyes, he wasn't honest. He'd left out the first mate's self-important strut; the appalling sight of his own hands, which amid the onions had suddenly looked just like his father's; and the sense that they were all posturing in front of each other, perhaps for the benefit of the green-coated boys. He rubbed at the stain on his thumb. Nor was it true, or not wholly true, that he wanted to paint the scene as if he weren't in it. He did want his own point of view to count, even as he also wanted to be invisible. Such a liar, he thought. Although chiefly he lied to himself. He'd wrapped himself in a cloud. Beyond it the world pulsed and streamed but he was cut off; people loved and sorrowed without him. When had that cloud arrived?
STILL THEY WEREN'T ready to leave. Captain Tyler banished Zeke and Erasmus the next afternoon, while the men tore out and then rebuilt the bulkheads in the hold. The sledges hadn't fit after all, in any configuration; the wood took more space than planned and the measurements on Zeke's sketch had turned out to be wrong. A clock ticked in Erasmus's chest: two days, two days, two days. They could leave no later, they were already late, the season for arctic navigation was short and the newspaper reporters and expedition's donors were ready to send them off on Thursday. Did he have enough socks? The right charts, enough pencils?
and Lavinia and her friend Alexandra Copeland. They were in the front parlor, all four of them working. Maps and charts and drawings spread everywhere. Without explanation he rose and ran to the Repository, which he ransacked in search of Scoresby's work on the polar ice.
he couldn't remember packing it. And couldn't bear the thought of explaining why it had suddenly seemed so crucial. The wry face Alexandra had made as he bolted embarrassed him. Yet her presence had been his idea--Lavinia couldn't stay alone, with only the servants for company, and she hadn't wanted to join Linnaeus or Humboldt. "A companion," he'd proposed. "Who'd like to share our home, in return for room and board and a modest payment."
rooms on the second floor. When Linnaeus and Humboldt, unexpectedly generous, offered work hand-coloring the engravings they were printing for an entomology book, Alexandra had accepted that as well and made herself at home. Now there was no escaping her; sometimes she even followed him into the Repository. But she was good for Lavinia, he reminded himself. The way she pulled Lavinia into her work was wonderful. He took a breath and headed back.
frowning with concentration and shifting her gaze from the original painting pinned above her desk to the engraved copy she was coloring with Alexandra's help. Caught up, he thought, as she'd never been helping him with his seeds. The plates showed four tropical beetles. The sun lit the brushes, the water jars, and the ruffled pinafores so dabbed with gold and rust and blue that the beetles seemed to have leapt from the plates to the women's legs. "Has anyone seen my copy of Scoresby?" he asked.
her brush to the paper, leaving three tiny golden dots. "I didn't know you needed it."
room for one more thing."
away, Lavinia called for tea and leaned over the table on which Erasmus and Zeke had spread their papers: rather too close to Zeke's shoulder, Erasmus thought. As if she were pulled by the fragrance of Zeke's skin; as if she did not have the sense to resist the almost farcical beauty that made women stare at Zeke on the street and men hum with envy. It pained him to watch her betrayed by her body's yearnings. To him she was lovely, with her wide hazel eyes and rounded chin, now charmingly smudged with blue. Yet he suspected that to the gaze of others--perhaps even Zeke--she was merely pleasant-looking. She seemed to know that herself, as she knew that among her monthly meetings of earnest young women, gathered to discuss Goethe and Swedenborg and Fourier, she was valued more for her sensibility than for her brilliance. One by one those women had married and disappeared from the meetings, leaving behind only Alexandra and her. Once, when he'd been voicing his concerns about Zeke, she'd said, "I know I love him more than he loves me. It doesn't bother me." Then had flushed so darkly he'd wanted to pick her up and pace her around the floor, as he'd done when she was an infant and needed comforting.
past Devon and Cornwallis and Beechey Island, where Franklin's winter camp had been found, then south along Boothia Peninsula and King William Land, Erasmus thought how maps showed only two things, land and water. To someone who hadn't traveled, their journey over that arctic map might seem a simple thing. Turn left, turn right, go north or south, steer by this headland or that bay. He and Zeke, who'd pored over their predecessors' accounts, knew otherwise. Ice, both fluid and solid, appeared and disappeared with consistent inconsistency; one year an inlet might be open, the next walled shut. Lavinia, unaware of this, traced the route backward and said with satisfaction, "It's not so very far. You'll be home before October."
expeditions have to winter over. We've provisioned for a full eighteen months, in case we're frozen in."
with Erasmus's book and then asked the question Lavinia might have been framing in her mind. "I haven't understood this all spring," she said. "If you take this route, which you say concentrates most efficiently on the areas in which you have some evidence of Franklin's presence, how can you also search for signs of an open polar sea? De Haven and Penny reported Jones Sound clogged with ice when they were there." She smoothed her paint-stained garment. "Ross found most of Barrow Strait frozen, and Peel Sound as well. Even if you manage to approach the region of Rae's discoveries, which lies south of all those areas, surely you can't also simultaneously head north?"
worried him for months, but he'd pushed it aside; Zeke hadn't mentioned his desire to find an open polar sea since the evening that had launched them all on this path. Lavinia's twenty-sixth birthday party, back in November; Alexandra had been present that night as well, although Erasmus had hardly noticed her. He'd been full of hope that Lavinia was about to get what she most desired.
with greenery and lining the sills with candles, scrubbing the dissecting table and shrouding it with crisp linen, on which he'd spread biscuits, a roasted ham, a turkey and a salmon in aspic. Lavinia had rejected her first three suitors--too dull, she'd said. Too weak, not smart enough. While her friends married and produced their first children she'd held out for Zeke and somehow won him. Erasmus had been terrified for her during her long campaign, then relieved, then worried again: his own fault. Zeke had asked for her hand but been vague about the details, and Erasmus had failed to press him. His father would have known better, he thought. His father wouldn't have permitted Lavinia to bind herself for an uncertain length of time. The damage was done, but secretly Erasmus had hoped Zeke might choose the party to announce a wedding date.
herself, radiant in white silk trimmed with blue ribbons. She stood perfectly still when Zeke, just as Erasmus had hoped, silenced the room and said, "I have an announcement!"
looked confused. Zeke rested his elbow on a case that held a bird-of-paradise. "You've all heard the news announced by John Rae earlier this month," he said. He stood with his chin up, his chest out, one hand dancing in the air. "No doubt you share both my sorrow at what appears to have been the fate of Franklin's expedition, and my relief that some news--however fragmentary, and possibly incorrect--has been obtained."
men, the many rescue attempts, the details of what Rae had discovered--old news to Erasmus, who'd followed every newspaper article. His guests listened, glasses in hands, among them women who would have listened with equal interest had Zeke been reciting the agricultural products of China; anything, Erasmus imagined them thinking, for this chance to gaze at Zeke blamelessly. Yet his own sister was the woman Zeke had chosen. "Perhaps you also feel, as I do," Zeke added, "that now that the area has been defined, someone has to search further for any possible survivors."
of Lavinia's face. She looked as puzzled as he felt.
backing of a number of our leading merchants for another expedition. Our valiant Dr. Kane has been searching for Franklin in the wrong area, and although we're all worried about him--and although I'd be the first to go in search of him if a relief expedition wasn't already being organized--something more is needed. I propose to set forth this spring, to search more thoroughly for Franklin in the areas below Lancaster Sound. While I'm there, I also propose to study the region, and to further investigate the possibility of an open polar sea."
something like a smile, hoping no one would notice his surprise. What merchants, when, how ... did everyone know about this but him? Lavinia, even, who might have hidden her knowledge--but she wore a smile as forced as his own. Zeke must have made these arrangements in secret, taking pleasure in presenting his plan only when it was complete.
about where Zeke might go, and how he might get there, and what sort of ship and crew he envisioned, Zeke took Lavinia's hands. She beamed as if his announcement were the ideal birthday present, and when a guest sat down at the piano and began to play, she and Zeke led the crowd to the floor.
his chest. He was watching the smoke rise through the still night air when Zeke appeared with two glasses and a bottle. He had to ask questions, Erasmus thought. Fatherly questions, although that role still felt odd: what this meant in terms of the engagement, whether Zeke wanted to marry Lavinia before he left--or release her, perhaps, until he returned.
the glasses and lit a cigar for himself. Erasmus opened his mouth to speak, and Zeke said, "Erasmus--you must come with me. When are you going to get another chance like this?"
expeditions he'd already missed--was this what he'd been waiting for? Even Elisha Kent Kane had spurned him, sailing off with a crew of Philadelphians younger but no smarter than himself. Perhaps Zeke sensed his discouragement, and the extent of his wounded vanity.
else as knowledgeable about the natural history of the polar regions? Or as familiar with the hardships of such a journey?"
was preposterous, but it seemed to him that Zeke was looking for a partner, not a subordinate. Surely Zeke wouldn't ask for his help if he didn't regard him as an equal, even--naturally--a superior? Erasmus said, "You're kind to think of me. But you might have asked me earlier--I have responsibilities here, and of course my own work..."
he said, pacing before the columns. "It's a huge imposition--I wouldn't think of asking you if your work weren't so invaluable ... but that's why you're the right person. I didn't want to bother you until I was sure I had backing for the expedition. Think of what we'll see!"
still be trapped in the Erebus and the Terror. Even if they couldn't be found, many new species, even new lands, were there to be discovered. Erasmus thought of being free, this time, to investigate everything without the noxious Navy discipline. He thought of northern sights to parallel, even exceed, his brief experience in the Antarctic; of discoveries in natural history that might prove extraordinarily important. Then he thought of his sister, who appeared on the porch with her white dress foaming like a spray of catalpa blossom.
to talk with you."
of skirts she turned to Erasmus.
was a little girl, as if this were the only way she could keep track of her brothers.
"Did he keep this secret from you?"
to criticize him? Especially since Father died: all you do is mope around, sorting your seeds--do you think I haven't seen you at eleven in the morning still in bed? So Linnaeus and Humboldt can run the business without you. So you haven't found anyone to fall in love with since Sarah Louise."
made him feel like he'd swallowed a stone. A dull ache, which never quite left him. As Lavinia knew.
don't see Copernicus moping around, you don't see Copernicus wasting his life ... I need you."
and his brothers used to bolt for the woods and return hours later, to find Lavinia waiting by a window with an unread book in her lap. He'd been the one she looked up to, the one who tied her shoes and taught her to read. Sometimes, when the other boys weren't around and he'd remembered not just that her birth had cost him his mother, but that she'd never had a mother, they'd drawn very close. Then his brothers would tumble in and he'd abandon her again. Back and forth, oldest and youngest. He had failed her often enough.
finches. "This is who I love," she said fiercely. "Do you understand? Do you remember what that feels like? What if something happens to him? You have to take care of him for me."
very hot. Once, after Zeke had been describing the shipwreck that made him a local hero, Erasmus had found her weeping in the garden. Not with delayed fear over what might have happened to Zeke, not with hysteria--but with longing, she'd managed to make him understand. A boundless desire for Zeke. When he'd tried to remind her that Zeke had flaws as well as virtues, she'd said, "I know, I know. But it doesn't matter. What matters is the way I feel when he touches my hand, or when we dance and I smell the skin on his neck." The strength of her feelings had embarrassed him.
mentioned a date?" His fault, he thought again. Why hadn't he asked Zeke himself?
own responsibilities but because he wanted her happy. Didn't he? She'd cared first for their father and then him. "You're sure ..." he said. "You feel sure of his feelings for you?"
know he does."
the party. And through a process he still didn't understand, he'd been led to this table and Alexandra's pointed questions; to the fact that, in two days, he'd be sailing north in the company of a young man he'd known for ages yet couldn't imagine accepting orders from.
The servants were Lavinia's province; as long as meals appeared on time Erasmus didn't notice who did the work. He thought they didn't know this, although Lavinia sometimes reproached him. And although once he'd overheard the staff in the kitchen referring to "the seedy-man" and then laughing furiously. Now he avoided the eyes of the girl with the tray and drew a breath, waiting to hear what Zeke would say about the open polar sea.
that she'd remembered his comment at the party, it didn't show. "I've noticed that. So you must have learned about the stretches of open water persisting all winter and recurring in the same places every year. What the Russians call polynyas. Inglefield found open water in Smith Sound. Birds have been seen migrating northward from Canada. A warm current flows northward beneath the surface, several people have observed it--suppose it leads to a temperate ocean, free from ice, surrounding the North Pole beyond a frozen barrier?"
the air, as if she were still holding her paintbrush.
to look for signs of this phenomenon if he could. So there's nothing so strange in my wanting to look as well."
the offices of wealthy men, while Zeke proposed their search for Franklin. A portrait of Franklin in full-dress uniform hung in the Narwhal's cabin--Franklin, Franklin, Zeke had said, as he asked the men for money. It made sense that he concentrated on this aspect of the voyage--how proud the merchants were, contributing to such a good cause! In Zeke, Erasmus thought, they saw a young man who could succeed at anything. The man they'd dreamed of being, the man they hoped their sons might be. Other expeditions might have failed, but Zeke's would not.
In the arctic one can never predict where the ice will allow one to go, nor one's speed, nor even always one's direction. My plan is to follow this route and search for Franklin. But were conditions to be unexpectedly good--were one of the northern channels to be open, say--it's possible we'd do some exploring."
the springy golden tufts; perhaps aware that Lavinia followed the gesture intently. And perhaps, Erasmus thought, a bit annoyed that Alexandra didn't. A sensible woman, she seemed immune to Zeke's charms.
here on the maps where you'd head north at all."
raise this money to search for Franklin, and then purposefully head in another direction, that would be quite wrong."
"The maps never tell us what we need," he said, turning toward Lavinia. "That's part of the reason we go."
gestures and the women's responses he hadn't been paying sufficient attention. The lamps were lit, the sun was setting, they were munching delicious chocolate cake; the maps beckoned and he was dreaming of glory. His own glory, his own desires. They might find survivors of Franklin's expedition; or if not, surely better evidence of what had happened than Rae's dispiriting tale. With any luck they'd find other things as well. All sorts of specimens, not just plants but seaweeds, fishes, birds--he would write a book. He'd sketch his specimens and write their descriptions; his talent was for drawing from nature, capturing the salient features as only a trained observer could. Copernicus, so skilled with color and light, would turn the sketches into paintings; Linnaeus and Humboldt would prepare the plates. Together they'd make something beautiful. For years, in the light of his disappointments, he'd pretended to himself that he wasn't ambitious--but he was, he was. And lucky beyond belief to be part of this voyage. A blaze of excitement blinded him.
and take what opportunities are offered."
bring it, after all. Surely there was room for one small book. "Zeke and I will respond to what we find, and decide accordingly."
THAT NIGHT, IN her diary, Alexandra wrote:
It's not Lavinia's fault her brothers underestimate her. I know she'll be different once the men leave and we're on our own; her mind dissolves in Zeke's presence. I'll be glad when we can be ourselves. This house is so beautiful, so spacious--what would my parents think, I wonder, if they were alive to see me in these two gorgeous rooms I now call my own? The window over my bed looks down on a planting of dwarf trees. My bed-linen is changed weekly, by someone other than me. And this painting is such a pleasure, so much more satisfying than needlework. So much better paid. Beneath the lining of my sewing box I've already tucked a surprising sum. Soon I'll be able to purchase some books of my own, an extravagance when I have the Repository shelves to browse through, once the men leave ... I'm impatient for them to go, I am. And wish that, like Erasmus, I might have the luxury of sleeping out there.
Zeke speaks? I wonder what Erasmus was like as a boy. Before he grew so frozen, before he sat with his chin tucked into his collar like that, and his right hand wringing his left so strongly one wonders he doesn't break the bones. Lavinia says that when she was a girl he was fond of beetles and moths, and teased the succession of governesses who raised her. I can't imagine him teasing anyone.
THE NARWHAL SET sail on May 28, in such a wild flurry that everything important seemed still undone and nothing Erasmus meant to say got said. He and Zeke stood on the deck in their new gray uniforms, waving their handkerchiefs. Above them the Toxophilites' pennant streamed in the wind, snapping straight out then beginning to droop, snapping straight out again. Terns hung motionless in the high currents, and Erasmus felt as though he himself were hanging between two worlds.
knots close to shore, followed by the cheering Toxies in their green outfits. Dotting the wharf in separate clusters were Zeke's and Erasmus's relatives and friends, their clothing splayed into wide colored planes by the wind whipping across the river. Alexandra had brought her entire family--her sisters, Emily and Jane; her brother, Browning; and Browning's wife and infant son--all of them huddled so tightly that it was as if even here, in the open air, they couldn't expand beyond the confines of the tiny house they'd shared since their parents' deaths. They were small, neat, and yet somehow fierce-looking; abolitionists, serious young people. They dressed in the colors of sparrows and doves but more closely resembled, Erasmus thought, a family of saw-whet owls. Browning had a Bible in his hands.
she and Browning had over the verses he read out loud. Later she'd sketch a portrait of Erasmus during these last minutes, which showed his hand clasped nervously around a stay, his graying hair curled beneath a cap that made him look oddly boyish, the tip of his long, thin nose sniffing at the wind. But for now she only stood silently, watching him watch everyone. In the oily water around the pilings wood shavings swirled and tossed.
from the engraving firm and some representatives from the Voorhees packet line; beyond them were Linnaeus and Humboldt, as plump and glossy as beavers, and Lavinia, leaning on both of them, overdressed in swirls of blue and green and flashing in the sun like a trout. At the tip of the wharf, befitting their support of the expedition, came Zeke's family. His father stood suave and proud, his still-thick thatch of ruddy hair moving in the wind and revealing his massive eyebrows and the lynxlike tufts on his ears. His mother, shrouded in black for the death of an aunt, was weeping. Not surprising, Erasmus thought; she was famous for the way she coddled her only son. Flanking her were Zeke's sisters, Violet and Laurel, beautifully dressed and seemingly contemptuous of their merchant husbands, who weren't sailing north.
ship; the tune piped by the Toxies' piccolo player shattered in the breeze until the separate and unrelated notes merged with the calls of the gulls. Behind the mountains and beyond the north wind, Erasmus's father had once read to him, past the cave where the cold arises, live a race of people called Hyperboreans. Here are the hinges on which the world turns and the limits of the circuits of the stars. Here there is no disharmony and sorrow is unknown. The figures on the wharf began to shrink. Everyone, except the dead, whom Erasmus had ever loved; every person who might be proud of him or admire his courage or worry over his fate. The faces faded, and then disappeared.
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Meet the Author
Andrea Barrett is the author of The Air We Breathe, Servants of the Map (finalist for the Pulitzer Prize), The Voyage of the Narwhal, Ship Fever (winner of the National Book Award), and other books. She teaches at Williams College and lives in northwestern Massachusetts.
- Cape Cod, Massachusetts
- Date of Birth:
- November 16, 1954
- Place of Birth:
- Cape Cod, Massachusetts
- B.A., Union College
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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A marvelous, intelligent, sensitive story, told by a great story teller and writer. Superior quality in writing style and research--and character analysis. A book to measure other books against. After reading it, I immediately ordered two of her books.
Going into this book I was very skeptical. I have never gotten into a 'scientific' book before. But this is a great read, and will easily capture your interest. The way she combines the adventure, romance, and science is amazing. To travel along with the characters through all their pain and suffering, both on and off the ship, and to see where their lives led them afterwards was great. Most adventure type books would end when the voyage ends, but I loved how this book took you farther than that, answered all those questions you usually have at the end of a book...did he do this/that, etc. To say I was impressed by this book would be an understatement!
All it needed to say was narwhal...
This book has a interesting story with very developed characters. It is one of the best books that I have ever read.
This is an elegant writing describing the toils of people of the mid 19th century while exploring the artic. This is true prose, the author gives us everything in this novel. It has adventure, tragedy, turmoil, romance, mystery, deceit, and ends in an heroic triumph. This was the first time I had read a novel by this author, but you can be sure, it will not be the last. GREAT WORK!
I chose the book because it features a 19th-century arctic sea adventure and its toll on a small crew who have to face its challenges. I was not disappointed. Amidst ship life with its own chain-of-command protocols and other policies/procedures, the crew's battle with the arctic elements was starkly portrayed and interesting. And even more interesting were the relationships, betrayals, and loves along the way. I was really drawn into this narrative. The characters face physical and emotional challenges that make you wonder how you would have fared.
Nar TO DE WHAL
This book has a great idea, great historical detail, and interesting (if a bit predictable) plot developments. However, the character development is sketchy at best. The reader is never given the full story on anyone's motivation or even the full story on events that occur, so it is difficult to sympathize with the characters or understand why they make the choices that they do. For example, the lead character (Erasmus) is devastated by the death of another character, but you never get a good look into how their relationship developed, so Erasmus's grief -- though it is described in detail -- doesn't resonate with the reader. Overall, it's a pretty good book but it could have been a lot better.
The idea of the story was very good, but the way the story was written left me very bored. To say it was a disappointment would be an understatement.
Narwhals, narwhals swiming in the ocean, causing a commosion , cuz they are so awesome, Narwals, nawhals , swimming is they ocean, pretty big and pretty white, beat a polar bear in a fight, like an underwater unicorn, they have a kick ass facial horn, they are the jedi of the sea, something somthing ye, Narwhals, they are narwhals, Narwhals, dont let them touch your balls, Narwhals, they are narwhals, Narwhals, inventors of the shish kabob!!!