Picks and Pans Review: The Arctic Grail

updated 04/03/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/03/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Pierre Berton

Frozen inside these 672 pages is the wherewithal to stuff a half-dozen TV movies full of drama, excitement, suspense and fascination. Here, well told in historian Berton's unadorned prose, are the amazing stories of the men who explored the Northwest Passage and the Pacific and the North Pole from 1818 to 1909. Berton makes it clear that these men were not driven just by a need to explore or by a thirst for money. No, these men were often powered by sheer ego. They wanted fame. They wanted to be stars. If this magazine had existed a century ago, these people would have been regulars on our cover: Sir John Franklin, for example, was a sort of Arctic Elvis who wouldn't die. He led more than one expedition to discover the Northwest Passage, the hoped-for route linking the Atlantic and the Pacific.

But Franklin didn't return from his last trip in 1845, and for years afterward his wife-cum-widow, the indomitable Lady Jane Franklin, insisted he was alive. She shamed British and American authorities into dispatching a parade of "rescue" missions (most of which did a better job of discovering new territory in the north than they did of learning anything about Franklin, whose body was never found). There were American eccentrics aplenty and there were a few nobly sane Scandinavians, who conquered the ice better than anyone (except the Eskimo natives). And there was Robert Peary, who says he discovered the North Pole—though Berton argues that he probably did not (joining an ongoing controversy). Ego helps explain why these men spent years away from home, suffering through cold, starvation and Arctic-induced insanity. And ego helps explain why so many early explorers refused to learn from the Eskimos that loose animal skins made better clothing than fine wool, that dogs were better at hauling sleds than men and that eating fresh seal meat and blubber—disgusting though it may have seemed—could protect them from scurvy. Too many died because of that stubbornness. Such egotists may not make great friends (or expedition leaders), but they make for wonderful reading. (Viking, $24.95)

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