The Voyage of the Narwhal: A Novel

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"A luminous work of historical fiction that explores the far reaches of the Arctic and of men's souls."—Denver Post
Capturing a crucial moment in the history of exploration—the mid-nineteenth century romance with the Arctic—Andrea 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 ...

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"A luminous work of historical fiction that explores the far reaches of the Arctic and of men's souls."—Denver Post
Capturing a crucial moment in the history of exploration—the mid-nineteenth century romance with the Arctic—Andrea 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.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
In 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.

--Greg Marrs

Philip Graham - Chicago Tribune
“Breathes with a contemporary urgency, an exhilarating adventure novel.... A genuine page turner that long lingers in the mind.”
Cleveland Plain Dealer

Breathtaking... exquisitely written in every way... fully worthy of the massive, dangerous subject it undertakes.

“[B]oth cunningly cerebral and hair-raisingly visceral.... This is an astonishingly good book by a writer we must declare as major.”
Thomas Mallon
“Andrea Barrett is a unique and indispensable talent. Her 'Voyage of the Narwhal' is a brilliant reversal of 'Heart of Darkness': the danger is not that the character's will 'go native,' but that a lust for scientific knowledge and intellectual distinction will drive them to cruelties they would have been incapable of before.”
USA Today
“A wonderful book in the truest sense of the word—wonder-filled.”
The New Yorker
“This novel takes off over the sea, straight out of history and into tragedy.... We get to luxuriate in the promise of retribution and in finely calibrated, persuasive prose.”
New York Times Book Review
“A gripping adventure story.... Barrett's marvelous achievement is to have reimagined so graphically that cusp of time when Victorian certainty began to question whether it could encompass the world with its outward-bound enthusiasm alone.”
Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Times
“Stunning.... Barrett shows the arrogance and delusion that drove the age of exploration better than any nonfiction book could.”
“Grand, intelligent, wide-ranging work. With elegance and economy, she's pulled off a seemingly impossible feat: critiquing the complacent authority of the 19th century novel in a book that's just as much fun to read as an old-fashioned Victorian opus.”
Peter Kurth
It's been a long time since an American novel appeared that's as stately and composed as Andrea Barrett's The Voyage of the Narwhal, the fictional account of a 19th century Arctic expedition and its aftermath that doubles also as a meditation on the nature of adventure and the scientific mind. As a writer, Barrett has long been concerned with the restless energies and interior conflicts that drive people to search for things not known before and, equally important, to capture what they find. In 1996, Barrett won the National Book Award for Ship Fever, a collection of shorter pieces on "the love of science and the science of love." In The Voyage of the Narwhal, she has shaped a compelling narrative around the golden age of Arctic exploration, written in the spirit, if not the length or the exact style, of a 19th century novel -- solid, unhurried, reflective and totally wedded to plot.

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

Cleveland Plain Dealer
Breathtaking. . . Andrea Barrett shows nearly total mastery of the craft of fiction. This beautiful book -- exquisetely written in every way -- is fully worthy of the massive, dangerous subject it undertakes.
Annette Kobak
Entirely through plot and character. . .the author shows how redemption is possible. . . .It takes Erasmus' voyage on the Narwhal. . .to lead him painfully to a more valuable inner voyage of discovery, and it's only toward the end that he begins to understand something of his own heart.
New York Times Book Review
Michiko Kakutani
Does. . .Ms. Barrett succeed in fulfilling her own large ambitions? . . .up to a point. . . .Only in the novel's final pages does drama give way to melodramatic contrivance. . . . fluent plotting gives way to increasingly contrived events. . .these events. . .do not tarnish Ms. Barrett's very real achievements . . .
The New York Times
John Skow
. . .[A] powerful, brooding movel. . .moves like an advancing ice age. —Time Magazine
From The Critics
Barrett's fifth book is a stunning novel that marries the meticulous detail and natural wonder of 19th century travelogue with a modern understanding of the genre. Winner of the 1996 National Book Award for Ship Fever, Barrett pokes subtle, cerebral fun at the arrogance of our ancestral adventurers, and depicts purportedly savage Eskimos as more sensitive than the barbaric heroes who "discoved" them. She exposes the dangers of recorded truths by framing her fictitious chapters with snippets of historical documents from the likes of the philosopher Erasmus and the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. Barrett infuses the manly myths of arctic adventure with human honesty.
­Elizabeth Welch
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Having honed her craft in four previous novels and the National Book Award winning short-story collection Ship Fever, Barrett delivers a stunning novel in which a meticulous grasp of historical and natural detail, insight into character and pulse-pounding action are integrated into a dramatic adventure story with deep moral resonance.

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)

Library Journal
In 1855, the Narwhal sets sail on a mission to find Sir John Franklin, lost while exploring the Arctic. On board is timid naturalist Erasmus Wells, whose sister is affianced to the ship's commander, Zeke Voorhees. The Arctic waters may be unforgiving, but they're not nearly as dangerous as Zeke's overriding ambition to make his name by finding Franklin. Barrett puts us on the deck of that ship, letting us feel the fear and the bitter cold; her prose has all the brilliance and heft of a looming iceberg. A novel of 19th-century grandeur that exhibits 20th-century sleekness and control. (LJ 9/1/98)
Chicago Tribune
A meticulously researched and historical novel that breathes with a contemporary urgency, an exhilarating adventure novel that is also a critique of adventure novels, and a genuine page-turner that lingers in the mind.
Carol Anshaw
Like an iceberg, the bulk of her story lies in the vast dark stillness beneath its surface. . . .[T]he novel emerges into a tale of the . . .modern. . .traditions we nwo so comfortably inhabit that th seldom give thought to what might have gotten pushed aside in the process of obtaining this questionably higher ground. -- The Women's Review of Books
Lisa Shea
Writing at the zenith of her powers, Barrett has found in the tale of this ill-fated Arctic expedition a rich metaphor for the limits of scientific knowledge and the deeper failings of the human heart. -- Elle
Annette Kobak
Entirely through plot and character. . .the author shows how redemption is possible. . . .It takes Erasmus' voyage on the Narwhal. . .to lead him painfully to a more valuable inner voyage of discovery, and it's only toward the end that he begins to understand something of his own heart. -- The New York Times Book Review
Convincingly imagined, authoritative in detail, and epic in scope.
Megan Harlan
[A] . . .richly researched fictional tale. . . .Despite the disappointingly pat finale, Barrett. . .masterfully navigates the waters of envy and egotism. -- Entertainment Weekly
John Skow
. . .[A] powerful, brooding movel. . .moves like an advancing ice age. -- Time Magazine
Michiko Kakutani
Does. . .Ms. Barrett succeed in fulfilling her own large ambitions? . . .up to a point. . . .Only in the novel's final pages does drama give way to melodramatic contrivance. . . . fluent plotting gives way to increasingly contrived events. . .these events. . .do not tarnish Ms. Barrett's very real achievements . . . -- The New York Times
Kirkus Reviews
Barrett's impeccably researched and stunningly written tale of a star-crossed Arctic voyage—a logical successor to such earlier fiction as The Forms of Water (1993) and the National Book Award-winning Ship Fever—is, simply, one of the best novels of the decade. In a flexible, lucid prose that effortlessly communicates detailed information about navigation, natural history, and several related disciplines, Barrett tells the increasingly moving story of naturalist Erasmus Darwin Wells' ordeals: First, when he's on an 1855 expedition in search of explorer Sir John Franklin's lost crew, an expedition led by Erasmus' rash, ego-driven future brother-in-law, Zechariah Voorhees; and second, when Erasmus' 'desertion' of their ship (the Narwhal) and the presumed death of the missing 'Zeke' poisons his reunion with his bereaved sister Lavinia and deepens his own fear that his life amounts to 'a history of failure.'

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 himself—a megalomaniac with striking resemblances to Melville's Ahab—is 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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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393319507
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 9/28/1999
  • Pages: 400
  • Sales rank: 368,006
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Andrea Barrett

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.


Andrea Barrett combines, as the critic Michiko Kakutani put it, "a naturalist's eye with a novelist's imagination." For the award-winning novelist and short-story writer, natural science, particularly nineteenth-century natural history, is a central preoccupation, and scientists and naturalists such as Linnaeus, Darwin, and Mendel frequently figure in her work. Barrett herself, however, gave up the study of science shortly after completing an undergraduate degree in biology. She entered a Ph.D. program in zoology but dropped out during the first semester.

Yet the way Barrett writes is, perhaps, her own brand of science; it involves long hours of research and the painstaking distillation of historical fact into historically accurate fiction. By her own admission, Barrett is an obsessive researcher: "Often for a story, I will do enough research to write a couple of novels, and for a novel I'll do enough research to have written an encyclopedia," she said in an interview in The Atlantic. But in the end, she adds, "fiction is about the characters, the image, the language, the poetry, the sound; it isn't about information. The information has to be distilled down to let us focus on what's really going on with the people."

Barrett didn't start writing fiction in earnest until her thirties, and she labored in comparative obscurity until 1996. Then, with four novels already behind her, she won the National Book Award for her first collection of short stories, Ship Fever. The collection explores the romantic and intellectual passions of a variety of historical and fictional characters, from an aging Linnaeus to a pair of contemporary marine biologists. In it, "science is transformed from hard and known fact into malleable, strange and thrilling fictional material," said the Boston Globe.

The book's success launched Barrett into the literary limelight, where her reputation continued to grow. Her next book, The Voyage of the Narwhal, tells the story of a doomed scientific voyage to the Arctic in 1855. The writer Thomas Mallon called it "a brilliant reversal of Heart of Darkness: the danger is not that the characters will 'go native,' but that a lust for scientific knowledge and intellectual distinction will drive them to cruelties they would have been incapable of before."

Recently, Barrett's work has begun to feature recurring characters, some of them related to one another. In another collection of stories, Servants of the Map, several characters from Ship Fever reappear, as does the ship cook from The Voyage of the Narwhal. As Barrett follows the trajectory of their lives and relationships, it is increasingly apparent how attuned she is to the emotional lives, as well as the intellectual lives, of her characters. As Barry Unsworth wrote in The New York Times Book Review, Barrett captures "that blend of precision and appropriateness that has always characterized the best prose, an attentiveness to the truth of human feeling that is in itself a supremely civilized value."

Good To Know

When she isn't writing, Barrett plays African percussion with a group of musicians in Rochester, N.Y. The group includes her husband, the biologist Barry Goldstein.
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Read an Excerpt

Author's Note and Acknowledgments
Note on the Illustrations
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Table of Contents

Author's Note and Acknowledgments 395
Note on the Illustrations 399
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Interviews & Essays

On Friday, September 25th, welcomed Andrea Barrett to discuss THE VOYAGE OF THE NARWHAL.

Moderator: Welcome, Andrea Barrett! Thank you for taking the time to join us online this evening. How are you doing tonight?

Andrea Barrett: Great. I am delighted to be with you.

Reynold from Clover, SC: Hello. Just wondering, what is a "narwhal"? Could you tell me a little about the title of the book and what it has to do with the plot and meaning of the book? I loved SHIP FEVER. Thanks.

Andrea Barrett: A narwhal is a small whale, and it is a very characteristically arctic whale. The males have a single long tusk that grows out of their jaws -- beautiful ivory thing. That was always presented as a unicorn thing. So in the case of the book, I chose that animal because it is so characteristically arctic, and in some Norse traditions it is the symbol of death. The color of the animal resembles the color of a drowned human being. It is a common name for ships that explore the Arctic. All those things came together to make me name it the Narwhal.

Pamela from Fairfield, CT: What did you want to be when you were a kid? Scientist? At what point in your life did you realize that you wanted to become a writer? Or was writing always in your blood?

Andrea Barrett: I started writing very late. I was a great reader, but I grew up in a small town in Cape Cod and I never saw a living writer, and I never knew for a great number of years that they existed. I thought writers were dead and lived in Russia. When I went to college, I majored in zoology as an undergraduate. And I didn't start writing when I realized I didn't have a scientific mind; I turned to writing later on.

Sue from Manville, NJ: Just from reading the description, I am reminded of MOBY DICK. Should I be? Did Melville influence you at all in writing this book?

Andrea Barrett: Yeah, you can't write about the sea and not be influenced by Melville. I read MOBY DICK when I was a kid and skipped all the parts about the whales. When I started writing this book, I went back and read it again, and it was a wonderful experience. The whales and the sea seemed to me this time to be the best part of the book. I am not crazy enough to compare myself to Melville, but I honor him and I cannot live up to him.

Claudia from Seattle: What inspired you to write this novel?

Andrea Barrett: It was a combination of things. I had a great passion for the Arctic as a little girl. When I was seven or eight, all I did was read things about the Arctic, like Peary, Cook, Nansen, Shackleton, and Amundsen. And then I sort of forgot about all of that when I was a teenager -- I was doing teenage things. I didn't care again until I was writing SHIP FEVER. Then I read about sunken ships and got my interest up again. I originally thought this would be a companion to SHIP FEVER, but it turned out to be a novel.

Judge from LA: Who did the illustrations in the book? They are beautiful. Did you select them?

Andrea Barrett: I did choose them. What they are is they are contemporary engravings from many of the 19th-century journals I was using to research this book. I was researching this book for three years, and to keep myself interested, I would take these engravings and somewhere along the course of the book, they became an integral part of the book. When I turned in the book, I included them, just to entertain the publisher, but my wonderful publisher liked them as well and used them. They are all illustrations that are very dear to me. Some are from taxidermy text, like a folded deer skin or the bones of birds, which is much more entertaining reading than you would believe.

Bruce Benson from Springfield, VA: Did you ever get so enraptured in writing this book that you almost personally felt caught up with the crew of the Narwhal?

Andrea Barrett: I did sometimes. That very often happens when you are writing a novel. The line between imagination and real life gets blurry sometimes, and when I spent so much of the time with the characters, I truly did feel stuck with them after a while.

Chip from Charlton, NY: Have you ever been to the region where THE VOYAGE OF THE NARWHAL takes place?

Andrea Barrett: I did go last summer for about two weeks, last June. What I would have most liked to do is find a 19th-century sailing ship and sail the same path, but what I ended up doing was going up to Lancaster Sound. I camped on the ice up there and I saw narwhals and I got to see what the sun looks like when it never sets. I saw caribou, seabirds breeding, et cetera. It was wonderful.

Martina from Raleigh, NC: Hello, Ms. Barrett. I have not read the new one, but I just wanted to tell you how much I loved SHIP FEVER. Is this book very different? This is a novel, no?

Andrea Barrett: It is a novel, but it is actually almost an extension of SHIP FEVER. In fact, one of the characters in the new book is a character from SHIP FEVER. The younger brother of a women named Nora, Ned Kind, gets shipped up river and disappears from the book, but if you pick up THE VOYAGE OF THE NARWHAL, you will see what happens to Ned. The concerns of the book are very similar: mid-19th-century natural history.

Sarah from Santa Fe: Are the characters in the book -- Erasmus Darwin Wells in particular -- based on real people?

Andrea Barrett: No, Erasmus is an invented character, but the context is very real. There were about 60 expeditions that went after Sir John Franklin between 1848 and 1849. I invented the '61 expedition and slipped it alongside the other expeditions. There is one slip of time when there wasn't anybody up there -- that is when I sent my characters. I did that so I could synthesize all the expeditions of the time to create a voyage and a set of characters who would be emblematic of all those cruises and experiences.

Bryan from New York, NY: I saw that you read at the Barnes & Noble at Union Square, and I am mad at myself for missing the reading. My question to you is, how exactly did you get such intricate details of the time? Did you research like mad?

Andrea Barrett: I did research like mad, but I love research -- it is as much fun for me as writing. I read almost everything that was written during the period. Hundreds of volumes of documents, newspapers, collections in crumbled yellow bound books. They are very popular now, but they were also the bestselling books of the times. There were some people who would come back from the Arctic, and when they would publish [their books], it would almost be like INTO THIN AIR. They had the same fascination at the time as we are now fascinated with the Arctic. They are very much still around, as they were published in large editions.

Neve Simpkins from Rochester, NY: Are you a fan of Diane Ackerman?

Andrea Barrett: I like her very much. She has a more romantic sensibility than I do, but she is much more brave then me. She actually goes out and does all this stuff. She finds people doing amazing things and follows them. I mostly go to the library. I always learn things reading her, and I love that in a writer -- that is more of my favorite things.

Jordan from Brooklyn: So, Michiko Kakutani, the New York Times reviewer notorious for scathing reviews, pretty much liked your book. Do you pay attention to reviews?

Andrea Barrett: I wish I could say I didn't, but I am human. I read them, and if they are good, I feel good, and if they are bad, I feel bad. If it is bad review, I am able to control my anger. It is a wonderful thing to send out books and get people's reactions. I may not agree with what the person says, but I always learn from it. It is a good thing. from xxxvvv: Would you ever consider making this tremendous story into a movie?

Andrea Barrett: I love movies. I love to watch them, but I don't know the last thing in the world about making them. I never think about them being turned into movies when I write them. I think the reason to write books in a time when there are so many beautiful movies is that you can write a book that won't be able to translate into a movie. It seems to me that one of the tasks of good fiction is to get interior states and the way people are thinking and feeling. But by the same token, some people have made great movies out of great books. I really loved THE ENGLISH PATIENT, and I thought it could never be successfully filmed, but I also thought the movie was very good.

Jonathan from Seattle: First of all, the book sounds great. I can't wait to read it. Secondly, what do you make of the new resurgence of books about man versus nature, such as THE PERFECT STORM and INTO THIN AIR. What is it that holds our attention?

Andrea Barrett: Interesting question. When I was writing the book, I wasn't thinking in terms of anything but the book. It was a wonderful surprise to me that other people were also obsessed with people-versus-nature things. I don't know what to attribute it to. I think sometimes that it is sort of millennial anxiety, but I think that we all have the sense that frontiers are being closed and all the physical worlds are being explored, so there is a kind of fascination with armchair exploration. I am not sure [frontiers are] closed to us, but you can feel that way if you are in an office all day staring at a computer screen. A lot of us live that way today.

Christina from Scottsdale, AZ: Did you spend any time with any Eskimos to write this novel?

Andrea Barrett: I did when I went to Baffin Island. There have been Inuit there for a very long time. In the 19th century it was a trading area, and it seemed like a very logical place for me to visit. I went out with some Inuit...they go out by what used to be a sled pulled by dogs -- now pulled by snowmobiles. When the ice breaks up, there is a great deal of life, and fishing and hunting, and on occasion they take strangers out there as well. They took care of me -- I was helpless out there.

Kitty from Delaware: What type of role do women play in this novel? I'm just curious about the roles they played in adventure narratives in the 19th century. I look forward to reading THE VOYAGE OF THE NARWHAL.

Andrea Barrett: One of the things I was trying to do in the novel was to bring women in very actively. The traditional voyage is always all men, and it starts when they go out on the journey and ends when they come home. THE VOYAGE OF THE NARWHAL starts when they go out on their journey, but it doesn't end there. Woven throughout are the perspectives of the women waiting for these men in Philadelphia, and the entire last third of the book is after the journey and the impact the journey had on the women at home, their own desires to go out. I was trying to braid those two things together.

Shadow from Home: So what really happened to Franklin's expedition? Did any of the findings of your research surprise you?

Andrea Barrett: Yeah, they did. What really happened to them is still slightly in doubt, but over the last 15 years, they have found new things. They knew in the 19th century that they all died, but they didn't understand why. Some scientists from Dartmouth did some testing on the skeletons and found lead in their bones, and they realized that the whole crew was suffering from lead poisoning -- they were eating tinned food and the lead leaked into the food, and part of the reason so many got sick was because of lead poisoning. They were very sick. There has been a great deal written about that over the past 15 years. You can look it up in your local library if you are interested.

Paul from Morris Plains, NJ: If you were alive in the mid 18th century, would you personally be interested in exploring such areas? I really enjoyed the book and I loved SHIP FEVER! I thought it was utterly fascinating, and just about as close to perfection as possible.

Andrea Barrett: Thank you very much. I would have wanted to visit those areas, but realistically, if I was a women then, I probably would not have been able to go. There were some women explorers, but not many. For me to have done that, I would have had to be a very upper-class person with a very unusual father, and those are things you can't count on.

Corrine from Montpelier, VT: Are you afraid that people aren't going to be able to make the distinction between fact and fiction in your story about Sir John Franklin's failed expedition?

Andrea Barrett: I do worry about that, but that is why I put in an endnote explaining what components are facts and what is invented, and that is also why I give an extensive bibliography enabling those interested to research more. It is fascinating.

Tori from Madison, WI: Do you still teach at any MFA programs? Do you enjoy teaching? Which do you prefer, writing or teaching? Also, when you wrote this book, did you live a very solitary existence?

Andrea Barrett: Yeah, I teach one semester a year in a low residency -- the MFA program for writers at Warren Wilson College, in North Carolina. I also teach at summer writer's conferences very often.

Elke from New York City: What are your five favorite books? I know this might be hard off the top of your head, but a gut reaction would be fine. Thanks for taking my question.

Andrea Barrett: All time -- off the top of my head, E. M. Forster's HOWARD'S END, Virginia Woolf's THE VOYAGE OUT, MOBY DICK, Joseph Conrad's LORD JIM, and Rebecca West's THE FOUNTAIN OVERFLOWS. But there are so many more.

Moderator: Thank you so much for spending a Friday night with us, Andrea Barrett. Do you have any final comments for the online audience?

Andrea Barrett: Thank you for your time in joining our conversation -- this was really fun.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 15 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 15 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 2, 2014

    Post Your Name Idea here.


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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 21, 2014


    Nar TO DE WHAL

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 18, 2013


    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!!!

    0 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 2, 2006

    Good idea, not well developed

    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.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 5, 2003

    Fantastic Story

    This book has a interesting story with very developed characters. It is one of the best books that I have ever read.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 23, 2002

    Inspiring Novel about humanity

    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!

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 3, 2001


    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.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 27, 2000

    Chilling in More Ways than One

    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.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 24, 2000

    Superior quality

    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.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 7, 2000

    A Must Read

    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!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 1, 2008

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    Posted November 14, 2008

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    Posted March 24, 2009

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    Posted January 20, 2009

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    Posted December 16, 2008

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