1998 - The Voyage of the Narwhal
Yesssssss. Yes, yes, yes. Shipwrecks! Arctic exploration! Detailed naturalist descriptions! This is why I read historical fiction. I was transfixed, completely transported to the decks of the Narwhal, a mid-19th-century ship which set out to rescue stranded explorers in the Arctic and detail the flora and fauna of the area. The narration is mostly from the view of Erasmus Wells, the son of a renowned naturalist. Erasmus has been on an arctic adventure before, but the trip ended disastrously and was deemed a failure. So when his soon-to-be brother-in-law Zeke asks him to join a new expedition, on the Narwhal, Erasmus is reasonably hesitant. Ultimately he joins the crew as the head of the scientific team, though by the end of the journey he has much more than specimen collection on his mind.
Andrea Barrett excels in establishing a sense of place. This was not a great selection for February/March in Minnesota, where winter already feels hopeless. And in passages like the one that follows and no amount of hot chocolate could boost my mood:
"A stiff wind jammed the ice against the brig and her against the coast; they sailed through hail and snow and freezing rain, which glazed the deck and the rigging. They probed the pack, searching for a passage south but blocked again and again. Plates of ice swept toward the shore, grinding over the gravel and tossing boulders aside before being crushed and heaved by other floes; the rumblings and sudden, explosive cracks made the men feel as if they'd been caught in a giant mouth, which was chewing on the landscape." P. 141
But, as we learn when the novel unfolds, there is more to the arctic than freezing seas and snow:
"The arctic's simultaneous sparseness and richness seemed to unfold. In his mind the long journey they'd made, and the plants and animals they'd collected, fell into a beautiful pattern. The dwarfed low willows and birches, hugging the ground to evade the blasting winds; the great masses of mosses and lichens and the sorrel growing like tiny rhubarbs; the small rodents skilled at burrowing--'It all forms a kind of rhythm,' Erasmus said, and Dr. Boerhaave agreed. The fact that they didn't fit into it made it no less beautiful." P. 166
This book is about much more than adventure gone awry. The narration jumps back to Philadelphia, where Zeke's betrothed, Lavinia, and her guardian, Alexandra, wait for months upon months with no word from the Narwhal. The women take the opportunity to learn the family trade: making engravings and printing plates for publishers and presses. The craftsmanship involved in this process is astounding. It is clear Barrett did tons of research on historic printing techniques; if anything, I wish she had shown us even more.
Without divulging too much of the plot, I must say that the structure of this book did not impress me. The run up to the expedition and the journey itself, with short glimpses of Lavinia and Alexandra's doings, were paced well. But the latter half of the book, in which Barrett explores what happens in the aftermath to all involved, is an important idea that unfortunately wasn't well-executed. There were many insightful moments that I wish had been better woven together, like this one:
"Observing people wasn't his business; even on the Exploring Expedition, the work of the linguists and anthropologists had made him uneasy. Instead he'd cultivated a kind of reserve. [...] Thinking himself virtuous, he'd averted his eyes and studied the plants and animals instead. But perhaps he'd simply been afraid? As if, by not passing judgment on the people he saw, he'd hoped to avoid having anyone pass judgment on him." P. 386
I love a good adventure book. High seas, mountain treks, deep jungles. I love it all. If you do, too, here are some further recommendations in this genre:
- Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
- In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson
- Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer
As I was coming up with recommendations I couldn't remember if I'd already recommended Bryson. So I made this list of all of my recommendations, mostly to help me, but it may be a good resource for you, too! (I'm working on improving the embedded formatting...thanks for your patience.)
Keep turning the page,