Don’t be misled by the catchy title of The Man Who Ate His Boots: The Tragic History of the Search for the Northwest Passage (Alfred A. Knopf, 441 pages, $28.95). The book is far from a biography of John Franklin, the 19th-century explorer who became well-known in press accounts of the day for “eating his boots” to survive the Arctic.
Instead, Franklin’s privations are among many detailed by author Anthony Brandt in his history of British explorers searching—or perhaps more accurately, casting about both blindly and bravely—for a Northwest Passage. And when it comes to excruciating hardships, Brandt has much to choose from.
A far from inclusive sampling in Brandt’s narrative includes scurvy requiring surgeons to cut away dead flesh each morning from men’s gums; mosquitoes so thick they block out the sun and suck caribou dry; and starving explorers forced not only to eat their boots, but also candles—and occasionally each other. And of course there’s the endless ice and snow itself—by one account, a “dull, dreary, heart-sinking waste, under the influence of which the very mind is paralyzed….”
It’s not a wonder that the natives—even if bewildered by their visitors’ pocket mirrors and believing the ships were alive—often come off as having more common sense than those who came voluntarily to the harsh region in search of the glory that came with finding the Northwest Passage.
Still, in Brandt’s well-researched account, it’s hard not to marvel at the guts of men like Franklin and William Edward Parry. The British public justifiably considered many of these men heroes in an era when the cost-benefit analysis of exploration was “What can we learn” instead of “How can we spend money on exploration when there’s starvation at home?”
And Brandt is at his best when he weaves in back stories of the politics and petty feuds that shaped much of the public perception. (The final irony, as Brandt notes, is that climate change has meant the Northwest Passage now has longer stretches navigable to ships and open to exploration of oil and natural gas.)
His book does suffer at times from some of the same meanderings that beset the explorers he’s writing about. For example, he begins by introducing readers to Arctic exploration in the 19th century before doubling back in the third chapter to the history of seeking the Northwest Passage centuries earlier. While the book also begins with an excellent chronology of events and regional map of the western Arctic, a more generous sprinkling of maps throughout the text would have been welcome.
But putting aside minor quibbles in trying to chronicle this expansive exploration history, the book’s pluses far outweigh its minuses.
READ: Anthony Brandt reads at Powell’s City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St. 228-4651. 7:30 pm Sunday, March 21. Free.