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From Barnes & NobleIn the stories of her 1996 National Book Award-winning collection, Ship Fever, Andrea Barrett explored the human passions at work behind a dazzling array of scientific endeavors. Now, in The Voyage Of The Narwhal, Barrett has enlarged upon that theme to create an extraordinary chronicle of 19th-century Arctic exploration, an intellectually and emotionally satisfying tale of adventure, ambition, tragedy, and redemption that transports the reader from the sitting rooms of 19th-century Philadelphia to the uncharted reaches of the frozen North and back again.
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.