Over the last couple of weeks, I have developed a new special interest of sorts in the Franklin Expedition, a failed British Naval mission whose goal was to find the Northwest Passage over Canada to the Pacific Ocean. Over the middle 1840s, this expedition, undertaken by the crews of the ships Erebus and Terror, left England and traveled part of the way through the seemingly uninhabitable Arctic sea and landscape of northern Canada (“seemingly” because there were and are, of course, people indigenous to this region), and subsequently was never heard from again.

In the decades following the disappearance of the Erebus and Terror crews, and in fact over the last nearly two centuries since then, rescue teams, and later explorers and researchers, discovered that all 129 men on both ships perished within about three years of their departure.

Through interviews with local Indigenous people, as well as historical, anthropological, archaeological, and forensic research of the sites where remnants of the expedition have been found, it has been concluded that many of the men died of lead poisoning, scurvy, infection, and starvation, as well as generally being ill-equipped to survive the extreme cold of the Arctic. There is also substantial evidence that at least some of the men on this expedition resorted to cannibalism, though whether victims were killed or died of natural causes is difficult to determine.

I first learned about the Franklin Expedition through the AMC limited series The Terror, which was recommended to me by a friend. I greatly enjoyed the series, and when I learned that it was based on a book, I went searching for that as well, and discovered that it was written by a favorite author of one of the faculty members who regularly attends Book Club on the Palatka Campus.

Dan Simmons’ The Terror is a fictionalized take on the Franklin Expedition, pitting the crews of the two ships against not only the cold, poor rations, and each other, but also a large, polar bear-like monster called Tuunbaq, whose purpose is to protect the Native people of the region where Erebus and Terror find themselves stranded. I’m only about halfway through the more than 700-page book, but so far it is a thrilling and fascinating story which perfectly melds horror and history.

In my further reading about the Franklin Expedition, I learned of another novel which presents the life story of a fictionalized Captain Sir John Franklin from his early career through his demise at the age of 59 on his final expedition through the Arctic. I have not yet read this book, but for those interested, this is The Discovery of Slowness by Sten Nadolny, available to read for free on the Internet Archive.

Fans of Margaret Atwood—author of The Handmaid’s Tale, Alias Grace, and numerous other books, short stories, and poems—might be interested in her short story “The Age of Lead,” which tells the story of a woman named Jane (named after the wife of Captain Franklin, commander of the Franklin Expedition) and her relationship with a man named Vincent, whose memory she is burdened with yet refuses to let go of. This story is told through a series of flashbacks remembered by Jane about Vincent as she watches a documentary about the Franklin Expedition alone in her apartment. This story may also be read on the Internet Archive, in Atwood’s book of short stories titled Wilderness Tips.

Another fictionalized telling of the Franklin Expedition story which I’m interested in reading later this year is The Ministry of Time by Kaliane Bradley. The Ministry of Time is about a woman who travels back in time to 1847 and falls in love with Lieutenant Graham Gore, a senior officer on the Franklin Expedition, who died in late 1847 or early 1848. Bradley’s book comes out on May 7, 2024, and I’ve already pre-ordered it for its Amazon summary alone, which describes it as “[a] time travel romance, a spy thriller, a workplace comedy, and an ingenious exploration of the nature of power and the potential for love to change it all.” (Though, this description of the book’s protagonist is also great: “an unmarried woman who regularly shows her calves, surrounded by outlandish concepts such as ‘washing machines,’ ‘Spotify,’ and ‘the collapse of the British Empire’… ‘[but] with an appetite for discovery, [and] a seven-a-day cigarette habit”). This book apparently has everything, and even if it’s a complete trainwreck (or shipwreck?), it sounds like it will be a wild ride!

If you’re interested in learning more about the Franklin Expedition from a more fact-based angle, the SJRSC Library and the Internet Archive have a number of nonfiction titles on the topic, as well as on other polar expeditions. Two leading titles, which I am currently reading and would recommend are Owen Beattie’s Frozen in Time: The Fate of the Franklin Expedition (available on the Internet Archive), and David C. Woodman’s Strangers Among Us (available through the SJRSC Library, linked below).

Cover ArtThe Terror by Dan Simmons
ISBN: 9780316017459
Publication Date: 2007-12-10
The "masterfully chilling" novel that inspired the hit AMC series (Entertainment Weekly).  The men on board the HMS Terror -- part of the 1845 Franklin Expedition, the first steam-powered vessels ever to search for the legendary Northwest Passage -- are entering a second summer in the Arctic Circle without a thaw, stranded in a nightmarish landscape of encroaching ice and darkness. Endlessly cold, they struggle to survive with poisonous rations, a dwindling coal supply, and ships buckling in the grip of crushing ice. But their real enemy is even more terrifying. There is something out there in the frigid darkness: an unseen predator stalking their ship, a monstrous terror clawing to get in. "The best and most unusual historical novel I have read in years." --Katherine A. Powers, Boston Globe
Cover ArtStrangers among Us by David C. Woodman
ISBN: 0773513485
Publication Date: 1995-09-07
In 1868 American explorer Charles Francis Hall interviewed several Inuit hunters who spoke of strangers travelling through their land. Hall immediately jumped to the conclusion that the hunters were talking about survivors of the Franklin expedition and set off for the Melville Peninsula, the location of many of the sightings, to collect further stories and evidence to support his supposition. His theory, however, was roundly dismissed by historians of his day, who concluded that the Inuit had been referring to other white explorers, despite significant discrepancies between the Inuit evidence and the records of other expeditions. In Strangers Among Us Woodman re-examines the Inuit tales in light of modern scholarship and concludes that Hall's initial conclusions are supported by Inuit remembrances, remembrances that do not correlate with other expeditions but are consistent with Franklin's.