Book Review: Franklin’s Lost Ship

An Arctic mystery is explored through lavish illustrations and narrative that bring the discovery to life.

Published May 27, 2016

Franklin’s Lost Ship: the Historic Discovery of HMS Erebus tells the tale of the discovery, in September 2014, of the remarkably well-preserved wreck of Sir John Franklin’s flagship, HMS Erebus. The find is a major underwater archaeology achievement that promises answers to an Arctic mystery that has fascinated people for over a century and a half. Also, as former Canadian member of Parliament Leona Aglukkaq says in her foreword, “… Inuit oral history has been validated.”

Franklin’s Lost Ship is lavishly illustrated with spectacular double-page spreads of Arctic land and seascapes, familiar historical images of Franklin and his ships, beautiful pictures of the ghostly wreck and artifacts from it, and portraits of the people, vessels, and technology employed in the six-year-long search. It is hard for John Geiger and Alanna Mitchell’s text to match this visual feast.

Chapters alternate between outlining the historical background and telling the story of the modern discovery. The history is solidly told, from Franklin’s jubilant departure from London in 1845 to the tragic deaths of the entire crews and the immense 19th-century search for an answer to what went so horribly wrong. The authors do not, however, say anything that is not well known to a reader who has dipped into any account of Franklin’s doomed attempt to transit the fabled Northwest Passage. Ironically, the authors even present the traditional theory that Franklin’s men all died on the trek south from the ships in 1848, despite this being called into question by the very Inuit oral testimony that was instrumental in leading the searchers to the site of the wreck.

The text outlining the modern search and discovery captures the excitement of first seeing the ship on sonar and of diving on the wreck to find the bell, and intrigues the reader with a multitude of questions that may, or may not, be answered in future seasons of work. Unfortunately, sections too often read like a government report and the flow is further broken up by multiple listings of Parks Canada’s partners and nods to former prime minister Stephen Harper’s involvement.

Franklin’s Lost Ship is an attractive coffee-table book. It is to be hoped that future discoveries on HMS Erebus will match the drama of the historical narrative.

Franklin’s Lost Ship: The Historic Discovery of HMS Erebus
By John Geiger and Alanna Mitchell
201 pp. HarperCollins