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‘Finding John Rae’ imagines inner life of Arctic explorer who discovered the Franklin expedition’s grisly fate

  • Author: David A. James
  • Updated: May 26, 2018
  • Published May 26, 2018

Finding John Rae

“Finding John Rae,” by Alice Jane Hamilton.

By Alice Jane Hamilton. Ronsdale Press, 230 pages. 2017. $21.95.

A century and a half after his momentous finds, the great Scottish explorer Dr. John Rae is finally getting his due. In 1854, while charting the Arctic coast of North America for the Hudson's Bay Company, he learned from local Inuit people the fate of the doomed Franklin Expedition, sent forth from England to discover the Northwest Passage nearly a decade before and not heard from since. A few days later, while looking out from Point de la Guiche, he determined that the strait to the east side of King William Island, bypassed by Franklin's men, would be ice-free in summer months, marking it as the last missing piece of the long-sought Passage.

By all measures he was a hero. But when he wrote the British Admiralty that he had been told Sir John Franklin's men had resorted to cannibalism in their final desperate efforts at remaining alive, he crossed a line Victorian England, and especially Franklin's widow Jane, would not allow to be breached. Harshly criticized by Lady Franklin, her close ally, Charles Dickens, and the British press, Rae spent the remainder of his life a controversial figure, his accomplishments never fully acknowledged by his countrymen.

In recent years, scholars of Arctic history have been reassessing Rae's achievements. His embrace of Arctic Natives and adoption of their lifestyle while traveling the Arctic, ridiculed at the time as "going native" in Britain, helped him thrive in a place where so many others died. Slowly his reputation has climbed.

Now comes Canadian author Alice Jane Hamilton's "Finding John Rae." A descendant of Rae's sister and a widely published author, Hamilton offers a well-researched, creative nonfiction account of the troublesome impact her distant uncle's discoveries had on Rae's life.

Hamilton has constructed this book as a series of journal entries wherein Rae tells his own story. It begins on what would be the most significant day of his life when, while mapping Boothia Peninsula along Canada's Arctic coast, he encountered an Inuit man named In-nook-poo-zhee-jook who wore a sealskin cap adorned with a gold band identical to those given to British naval officers. It was the first clue to what had befallen the lost Franklin Expedition, for which the British had begun searching six years earlier.

After further mapping work – which led him to determine the Passage's location – Rae interviewed dozens of Inuit and assembled the story of what had happened to Franklin's men, that they had abandoned their ships and attempted an overland escape, that they had died as they walked and that the final stragglers had eaten the remains of their fallen crewmen.

Hamilton spends the early pages of this book in the Arctic and completely bypasses Rae's numerous prior journeys in the region. Her focus here is getting into Rae's mind and seeking to discover how he navigated treacherous political terrain, not a challenging physical landscape.

Hamilton's narrative is, for the most part, historically accurate. Upon returning to England in 1854, Rae learned that the British Admiralty had publicly released his report to them, which he had intended to be kept private. It was there he had conveyed the stories of cannibalism. The British public reacted with outrage and disbelief. In this they were egged on by Lady Franklin and Dickens. Both were obsessed with turning Sir John into a hero and martyr for British glory. To ensure this goal, the ugly truth could not be allowed to stand. Dickens, armed with his ownership and editorship of a popular weekly journal, insisted that it was the Inuit who had fed on the corpses of the Expedition's victims, a view embraced by much of the populace.

Rae knew better. Having lived among the Inuit he was familiar with the reliability of oral testimony among people who depended on the most accurate information possible simply for their survival. He also knew that they had an even deeper revulsion to cannibalism than the British. But in a society that held itself as the pinnacle of human attainment and honor, this was not conceivable. Even Dickens, justifiably known for his compassion towards Europe's impoverished classes, could not extend his feelings to people with darker complexions.

Hamilton follows Rae as he defends his findings in the face of those who attempt to wish them away. In one particularly fraught scene he meets with Lady Franklin and Dickens, who make it clear that they will be demolishing his claims. The dialogue in this episode, as in the rest of the book, is carried out with the Victorian Era politeness that ruled upper-class British interactions of the time, even as rage sometimes simmered just below the surface. This use of the period's vocal and written mannerisms is part of what makes this book feel so true most of the way through.

The story drags somewhat in its latter passages as we follow Rae into marriage. His wife miscarried four times and the couple remained childless. They moved between Canada, England, and the Scottish Orkneys where Rae grew up.

In the final pages Hamilton creates her only fully fictionalized scene when she has a young Inuit man visit Rae in Scotland. Here, our era's critique of British behavior during the Age of Exploration takes over, and while the criticisms are fully truthful, we cannot know if Rae would have embraced them as Hamilton has him do. He certainly felt strongly in that direction, and he never relented in his support of the Inuit, but where his limits in disparaging his own country might have been we can only imagine. As a novelized work it brings the story full circle, but here Hamilton is speaking, not Rae.

It's a significant but not crippling flaw in a beautifully written book. Franklin's name is eternally tied to the Arctic despite his numerous blunders and ultimate failure there. Rae, who was tremendously successful, remains little known beyond those well acquainted with the region's history. Hopefully Hamilton's book will help change this.