By Laura Waterman, University of Wisconsin Press, 384 pages. 2019. $27.95
Historical fiction, properly undertaken, can take readers into events that have been combed over by countless nonfiction authors, providing insights into a time and place in personalized ways that only firsthand accounts can match. Such novels, by definition, are a form of speculation, since they put thoughts into the minds and words in the mouths of participants. But for writers devoted to the task of digging deeply into incidents of significance, and to seeking an understanding of those involved and how the happenings affected them, the results can shed new light even on familiar stories.
An example of how effective this can be is found in “Starvation Shore,” a novel by Laura Waterman, who has done a masterful job of bringing to life the calamitous Greely Expedition.
Officially dubbed the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition, the 25 men composing it departed St. John’s, Newfoundland, in the summer of 1881 under the command of Lt. Adolphus Greely, a United States Army officer assigned to the Signal Corps. They were part of the First International Polar Year, and their job was to set up a High Arctic station on Canada’s Ellesmere Island to record scientific observations as part of an effort to collect data from the Earth’s polar regions. Only six would return alive.
In the realm of Arctic catastrophes, Greely’s ranks only below Franklin’s for the disaster that ensued. After two successful years that included gathering vital information on the Arctic, as well as marking the northernmost human trek at a time when the North Pole was still an unreached goal, Greely led his men on a southward retreat after resupply and retrieval ships failed to arrive. The sea ice that in 1881 had hardly hindered their trip north failed to clear the following two years, preventing access for ships. Orders coauthored by Greely himself required abandoning their post under these conditions, and seeking help as far south as possible.
After a treacherous journey across rough seas and over ice floes that was nearly fatal, all of the men arrived at Cape Sabine, on Ellesmere, where they erected a shelter and dug in for the brutal arctic winter of 1883-84. In the initial months they were underfed, but mostly healthy. But as the new year arrived, tragedies came with it, first slowly, then in rapid succession. Food ran low and then it ran out. Wild game was all but nonexistent. Men starved and died. Accidents took others. One was executed for repeatedly stealing food. Eventually, the story goes, the living ate the dead.
Here we get to the only serious shortcoming of this book. In her introduction, Waterman writes, “That cannibalism took place is undisputed.” This is not quite true. Evidence indicates the extremely high likelihood that it did, but a quick look at writings about the disaster show that to this day some still dispute it.
But for the sake of the story, it had to have happened. Waterman is focused here on exploring the outermost reaches of human survival. Thus the time spent on Cape Sabine at what the men named Camp Clay composes nearly half of this gripping book. But first she sets the stage.
Waterman covers the expedition’s first two years over the course of 160 pages or so with a keen sense of character development. Working with men who lived and mostly died on the journey, and whose individual dispositions can be at least partially determined from the journals that were kept, she fleshes them out and makes them fully human.
Sgt. David Brainard, from whose perspective much of the story is told, sits at the center. Hailed by many who have written about the expedition as responsible for the survival of those who did live, he’s a natural hero. But Waterman doesn’t take the easy way out and make him heroic. He’s a man of high moral standards, but also fully aware that life is never black and white. He makes hard decisions. At the other extreme stands Private Charles Henry, the villain of the tale — although there are actually three major antagonists, and other men have their breakdown moments. Henry was the one executed for theft, and in this book he’s an ongoing problem from the beginning. Living under an assumed identity, he’s a convicted criminal who had also committed a murder he got away with. His humane moments are few, but Waterman finds them and develops a complex individual rather than hackneyed bad guy. Greely, meanwhile, struggles with the burdens of command and the mistakes he makes that lead to the tragedy.
At Camp Clay, Waterman explores the actions and motivations of these and other men as they first fight for survival, then slowly succumb to failure. And she finds her way into their thinking to discern where the point of no return lies, the moment when living men are willing to eat their dead compatriots in a final desperate attempt at staving off their own deaths.
The tension in this book is both extremely well-paced, and for the reader, consuming. Having made us care about these men in ways that a historian bound solely by facts could not, she casts them in a morality play with no easy answers. And she leaves it to her readers to make the difficult moral judgment. Seven of the men were only days from death themselves when a rescue vessel found them, and one did not survive the trip home. If they did engage in cannibalism, by her telling it’s what saved them.
“Starvation Shore” is a remarkable novel. It helps for readers to know the history behind it, but one needn’t have read deeply on the events to be drawn in. Every page rings true. Both the characters and the setting are completely realized. Whether the cannibalism happened or not (historians can debate this point), Waterman has made the Greely Expedition immediate and real. This book deserves a place among the essential works about one of the most complex tragedies of Arctic exploration.