Hakai Magazine

Cover image courtesy of McGill-Queen’s University Press

Book Review: Finding Franklin

Teasing the fate of Sir John Franklin’s expedition from the frozen Arctic has been an obsession of searchers since 1854.

Authored by

by John Wilson

Article body copy

This is the book that everyone who was intrigued by the news that Sir John Franklin’s flagship, HMS Erebus, had been discovered by Parks Canada in the Canadian Arctic in September 2014 has been waiting for. It is exceptionally timely given the finding of HMS Terror in 2016. The discovery of both remarkably well-preserved wrecks and the ongoing analysis of the ships and their contents marks the beginning of an exciting new phase in the search for the answer to what went so horribly wrong that not one of the 129 officers and crew survived to tell the tale. It’s the perfect time for Russell A. Potter, a respected Franklin scholar, to give us a comprehensive review of the story so far.

There will probably never be a complete answer to what killed Franklin and his men more than a century and a half ago. Over the years, theories about what went wrong have included lead poisoning, botulism, murder, and plain bad luck, and Franklin and his crew have been painted as heroes, fools, imperialists, and, most recently, as symbols of Canadian sovereignty. Over the years, the mystery has encouraged an assortment of intriguing characters to engage in, as Potter describes it, “a mythical quest into the nature of loss itself.”

The first third of Finding Franklin outlines the cultural and historical background of the expedition, the subsequent searches, and the continued fascination with the disaster. The chapters focus on the various aspects of the long search: the bones, provisions, maps, and papers that tell us what we know. The rest of the book covers the major searchers in chronological order from John Rae in 1854, who brought the first evidence of the explorers’ fates back to the United Kingdom, to Tom Gross, who still goes north every summer to gather more evidence on the shore of King William Island. It is a clear structure that makes the information easily accessible. The illustrations are well chosen and, for the most part, steer clear of the overly familiar.

Finding Franklin is an ambitious book for its length, and Potter succeeds in combining what has been discovered and the often-eccentric characters of the searchers into an informative, readable tale that will appeal to the neophyte while still presenting new snippets of information for the eager expert.

Finding Franklin: The Untold Story of a 165-Year Search
By Russell A. Potter
276 pp. McGill-Queen’s University Press