Cultures and societies live by myths and legends — narratives that tell us who we are, where we’ve been and where we’re going. Think of America’s Wild West lore, its straight-shooting, take-charge cowboy persona that’s touched the psyche of millions. Other grand narratives speak of failure and calamity; they inspire us with their breathtaking idiocy. Canada’s seminal myth is one of these cautionary tales, the subject of a wonderful first novel.
On the Proper Use of Stars by Dominique Fortier gives a fictional account of the doomed Franklin Expedition. Those of you with no Canadian smarts, read on: In 1845, two sailing ships (with 129 men and five years worth of provisions) left Britain to find the Northwest Passage through Arctic waters and claim it for the British Empire. Having set sail in May of the year, they were hemmed in for winter by Arctic pack ice. Three years later, the ice hadn’t budged and neither had the ships. With rations depleted and sailors dying (some of them from toxic tinned food), the survivors embarked on a death march across the ice, dragging behind them canoes full of useless artifacts, including flatware, button polish, bibles, wax seals, bedroom slippers and curtain rods. Behind them remained the detritus of British civilization, scattered across the ice in a massive garbage heap around the two stranded vessels, and not a Blue Bin in sight. Needless to say, things did not end well.
Fortier unfolds this novel through an impressive grab-bag of narrative techniques and wild juxtapositions, all of which move the story along and mirror its subtext of civilization’s clutter rendered useless by the crushing force of ice and snow. The novel navigates between the voyage itself and the drawing rooms of England, told through both first- and third-person narrative and from multiple points of view, including those of the confident Captain Franklin, his second-in-command Francis Crozier (a voice of rectitude and moderation), and Lady Jane Franklin (whose intelligent assessment fails to persuade the admiralty of the need of a rescue mission). Most poignant are the bunkroom conversations between chilled sailors grown hungry and desperate. Their anguish is rivaled only by Crozier’s sorrow over his unrequited love for Lady Jane’s niece Sophia, left behind in a country forever lost to him.
The literary flotsam scattered throughout this tale includes Lady Jane’s Christmas dinner menu, a play script, excerpts from journals and diaries and various undecipherable scribbles (A 19th century plum pudding recipe is appended to the text). This entertaining overflow of detail makes the reader uneasy; like the doomed voyage, it hints at excess, reminding us that we know the characters’ fates before they do, and that their fate may be ours.
One year into the ships’ imprisonment in the ice, champagne is still being poured at the captain’s table; later, as conditions worsen, the remaining officers are served “brownish gruel” on silver trays. Yet as flawed as her characters may be, Fortier allows us to care about their fates, reminding us that their human frailty and depth of denial are a distant echo of our own.
On the Proper Use of Stars by Dominique Fortier is translated from the French by Sheila Fischman. It was published in Toronto in 2010 by McClelland and Stewart.