Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The TLS is hip to Toronto . . .

Turns out the TLS has a soft spot for Toronto. In an upbeat review of How the Scots Invented Canada, the London-based journal (Dec. 10) -- no stranger to acerbic commentary -- encapsulates my take on an early governor-general. It then says that John Buchan's words, "as McGoogan notes in this enjoyable book, show that he would be very much at home in a Toronto that would horrify Bishop Strachan -- a city the United Nations has called the world's most multi-cultural."
Love the whole review. And the same can be said of the one that turns up in the January-February issue of Canadian Geographic magazine. Here we read that "McGoogan expands on [Arthur Herman's] narrative by focusing on a few dozen path-breaking Scots; he claims that these men and women and their descendants have been the invisible architects of Canada, laying the foundation for a pluralistic nation that would eventually become “the world’s first postmodern democracy.” Ambitious, resourceful and well educated, these Scots emerged as leaders in Canadian exploration, politics, business, education, literature and science." You can read the rest by clicking on the headline above.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Excellence in Teaching Award

Much as I hate blowing my own horn, I do have to thank the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies for presenting me with an Excellence in Teaching Award. It sounds cynical, I know, but I've  always believed that these awards went to those who lobbied for them. So this one came as a huge surprise. When Lee Gowan, head of the Creative Writing Program, phoned and said he was donning his official hat, I thought: "Uh oh. I have been found out!" Then, in handing out the award, Marilynn Booth, director of the SCS, said so many nice things that she made me blush . . . and THAT is not easy to do. Photographer Max Summerlee took some great shots, among them this one of Marilynn and me.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Manitoba, Canada, and the North 2011

You have to love the way the Manitoba Historical Society is bringing me in for the 46th annual Sir John A. Macdonald Dinner. They know how to treat an author! And check out the new Adventure Canada brochure. I've been traveling with these folks, experts all, for a few years now, and I swear they just keep getting better. If you scroll down, you can find Our Hero writing about his 10 weeks of road-trip rambling around Scotland, summarized in How the Scots Invented Canada. Then comes the confession about how I glossed over two key moments. "The first came when westood in the wind at the Mull of Kintyre in the south of Scotland. We had arrived in a morning fog, but as we stood gazing over the water, the fog lifted and, sure enough, we could see it, not twenty kilometres away: the northcoast of Ireland. We could almost touch it.The second moment occurred on that coast. Having deked over to Ireland, we were staying at a B&B just outsideBallycastle. One evening, we chased a rugged, cliffside path along the rocky coast until, as promised, we came to the ruins of a magnificent castle." Read the rest by scrolling down here. Go head, you know you want to!

Monday, December 6, 2010

The view from Vancouver Island . . .

Scots had vital role in Canadian history

Without the work of the Scots, Vancouver Island would be a much different place. Take it from Ken McGoogan -- although, judging by the name, he just might have a bias of sorts.
McGoogan's How The Scots Invented Canada looks beyond the Island, of course, because it turns out that Scots have played major roles from sea to sea to sea (really). But it is still remarkable to note the Island connections in this collection of biographies of notable Canadian Scots.
At the top of the list of would surely be James Douglas, who quite rightly is known as the father of British Columbia. Douglas determined the location of the Hudson's Bay Company fort that grew into the city of Victoria, and guided us through the gold rush that made us back in the 1850s. . . .

Read more: http://www.timescolonist.com/Scots+vital+role+Canadian+history/3930626/story.html#ixzz17MHP9YCZ

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

How the Scots Get Ready to Party . . .

James Jerzy McGoogan
My favourite Scottish holiday tradition has long been The Ba. That’s the lunatic game the Orcadian Scots play at Christmas and New Year’s.  A couple of hundred players, mostly young men, take over the streets of Kirkwall and participate in this rugby-like game that involves carrying a cork-filled leather ball, “the ba,” either up the main street or down it. Each team has dozens of players, no limit, and some of them harbour grudges. But the main difference from rugby is that there are no rules – none. Anything goes.
So maybe I should clarify. I love the idea of someone else participating in The Ba, whose disputed origins are lost in the mists of time. But no, I cannot recommend that tradition to Canadians who wish to embrace the Scottish dimension of the holiday season that is almost upon us.  I am thinking mainly of my one-year-old grandson, James Jerzy McGoogan (pictured above), to whom I dedicated my book How the Scots Invented Canada. Do I want him ever to play in The Ba? No, I do not.
By comparison, Hogmanay is tame. This Scottish celebration starts on New Year’s Eve and runs through the next day and sometimes longer. Scotland’s national poet, Robbie Burns, once revelled in Hogmanay festivities that spun out of control. . . . [Read more by clicking here.]

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Here's from Canada's History . . . .

 With Scotland at my shoulder. . . .
On the Night Table of Ken McGoogan
When I write history, I try to wear my research lightly. And for my last five books, I have been blessed with an outstanding editor, Phyllis Bruce at HarperCollins Canada, who catches me up whenever I let my reading show. “Lighten up,” she writes in the margins. “Too academic!”

 In my new book How the Scots Invented Canada, the bibliography runs to sixty titles. Highlights include three collections of essays, a meditation, and a couple of surprises. In The Scottish Tradition in Canada, edited by W. Stanford Reid (M&S, 1976), I found thirteen scholars coming at Canadian life from fourteen angles. . . .
The expose continues here.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

How the Scots celebrated at the Atwater Library

Ken & Cameron at the Atwater Library
So this was the scene at the Atwater Library in Montreal, just before our hero explained How the Scots Invented Canada. That's Cameron Stevens, the Piper Major of the legendary Black Watch regiment. We're facing a goodly crowd that proceeded to do the right thing . . . i.e. they bought every book that was there to be sold, and even one that wasn't. And they filled out more than a few entries, as well, in hopes of winning that voyage through the Scottish Isles. I told the audience, truthfully, that Sheena won us a trip to Scotland last year when her business card got pulled from a jar. So, yes, Virginia, it can happen to you. The Atwater event preceded a fun occasion at Bishop's University, and a two-hour interview with a BBC film crew working on a three-part series about Scots in Canada. Then came Ottawa, where I donned my Public Lending Right cap, and home, where CBC Radio turned me loose on unsuspecting listeners in 11 cities across Canada. Down time is for sissies.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Toronto Star makes Our Hero tingle?

Folks have been clamouring for an update. Maybe start with the fabulous reviews in The Toronto Star and January Magazine. The two are radically different, but both made me blush and tingle. Cut to this afternoon and "The Willow" in Hudson, Quebec, where we talked and taped for two hours. This was in aid of a three-part BBC series that will begin airing in February. And it followed hard on radio interviews at CJAD (Montreal), CBC Radio (Quebec), and CJMQ (Sherbrooke). At the Atwater Library in Montreal, the piper major of the Black Watch, Cameron Stevens, piped me to podium -- a special treat. Lynn Verge at the library orchestrated a wondrous event (sold all stock). And in Sherbrooke, at Bishop's University, a terrific audience turned out thanks to Mieke Koppen Tucker, an old friend -- and they bought a truckload of How the Scots and more than a few of my Arctic books. Multitudinous folks entered to win that incredible free voyage around Scotland with Adventure Canada, which is co-sponsored by HarperCollins Canada (which has done something fabulous and exemplary with a revolving homepage). Meanwhile, almost 100 people have checked out the interview at Book Club Buddy.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Win a trip to Scotland!

Yes, it's really happening. Adventure Canada and HarperCollins Canada are sponsoring a fabulous contest to celebrate the publication of How the Scots Invented Canada. You can win a free voyage through the Scottish Isles -- that's a free berth for one, plus a discount for a companion. How cool is that! I will be sailing on this expeditionary cruise as an author-historian. Along with other resource people, I'll give talks and slide-show presentations. As always, we will use Zodiacs to go ashore at different locations. And I promise that, if called upon, I will lead the charge to the nearest pub or whisky distillery. That's the kind of guy I am -- always willing to go that extra mile. Check out How the Scots and see for yourself.

Bonus: Here's a review that turned up in The Edmonton Journal . . . .

Friday, October 15, 2010

MacSkimming and Winter lead the charge?

Well, geez, already I like the Book Section in tomorrow's Globe and Mail and the paper's not on my doorstep yet. First we discover Roy MacSkimming writing about How the Scots Invented Canada:
"There’s indeed much fun here, as well as instruction (Scots always like that), and your name doesn’t have to begin with Mc or Mac to savour this book." http://www.theglobeandmail.com/books/how-the-scots-invented-canada-by-ken-mcgoogan/article1758926/

Then we find Kathleen Winter talking about Lady Franklin's Revenge: "What I love about this book, aside from McGoogan’s elegant, lucid and impassioned writing, is the turmoil between the lines." You gotta love it.
Next stops: Montreal and Sherbrooke. More details to your right under What's New.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Adventure Canada joins HarperCollins in launching the Scots

So how cool was that? We had a bagpiper precede me to the stage, we had publisher Phyllis Bruce of HarperCollins Canada produce a bottle of champagne, and we had Matthew Swan announce a fantastic contest involving the book and my next voyage with Adventure Canada. The book is How the Scots Invented Canada. The occasion was the Toronto launch at the Dora Keogh Pub. And the contest will involve sailing through the Scottish Isles, though details won't be announced until next week. For the rest, revelers ended up singing Northwest Passage, and Ben McNally Books moved 50 copies of the opus -- a sell out! Here, in a photo by Peter Rehak, you see Matthew capping an array of gifts with . . . wait for it . . . a can of haggis. Maybe you had to be there.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Missing Amundsen photo turns up in Yellowknife museum

Here's the "final answer" as reported in The Gazette. . . .


A Yellowknife heritage centre holds the final answer to questions raised by the opening of an Arctic "mystery box" excavated from a cairn in Gjoa Haven, Nunavut.

The wooden box, according to those who opened it Friday in Ottawa, contained no items related to Arctic explorers Sir John Franklin or Roald Amundsen. Officials from the Canadian Conservation Institute and the Nunavut government said the box, excavated at the beginning of September, contained only bits of a cardboard box, plus "pieces of newspaper, and what appeared to be tallow" beneath sand and rocks.

Yet a retired Hudson's Bay Company manager, Eric Mitchell, had said that in the late 1950s, the wooden box contained an inscribed photograph left by Amundsen in 1905. He knew this because he helped put it there. So where did that photograph go?

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

No Franklin, no Amundsen: Why the delay?

So the box contains no Franklin items. For that I was ready. But nothing related to Roald Amundsen? That was a surprise. But then my old friend Louie Kamookak clarified for me.  He was one of the two men with whom I once placed a plaque on the coast of Boothia Peninsula to honour the discovery, by John Rae, of the final link in the Northwest Passage. Louie is also the grandson of Paddy Gibson, the HBC man who dug up the Amundsen photo (of Neumayer) in 1927. George Washington Porter reburied it in the late 1950s. But then, in the late 1970s, Louie explained, another HBC man took the Neumayer photo and the slab of marble that Amundsen left and brought them to Yellowknife, so they ended up
in government storage. So that would be why the delay. Almost certainly, that HBC man left a note in the box before he reburied it -- a note explaining what he had done. So now, before they reveal the note,
those who dug up the box want to locate the Neumayer photo and the marble slab, so they can produce them at the same time.That's my thinking on it, anyway. Oh, and one more thing: Louie Kamookak would like to see the cairn honouring Paddy Gibson rebuilt. That doesn't seem a lot to ask.

Monday, September 27, 2010

U.K. authors battling for Public Lending Right

It's a bad movie that we don't want to see playing in local theatres any time soon. Authors in the U.K. are mobilizing to stop the government from making cuts to the national Public Lending Right, which provides authors with a payment of six pence each time one of their books is checked out from a U.K. library. Many prominent writers have added their names to a petition requesting that the government keep PLR, which they say “gives effect to a legal right and is not a subsidy,” intact. Crime writer Penny Grubb says in The Guardian  that a looming funding review will be a “dog fight,” but called for action to ensure that PLR money remains untouched: “With average earnings for writers so low, and with such a short shelf life for books in shops these days, PLR income for many writers is a vital part of their take-home pay.” There's more where that came from, but some of the ill-informed comments on the article are . . . disheartening.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

There WILL be bagpipes . . .

If you live in the Centre of the Universe, or even if you're just visiting, there WILL be bagpipes at this bookish bash . . . for reasons that may well be obvious. Come on down!

Monday, September 20, 2010

Would you believe another discovery of Franklin relics?

At first I was sceptical. But the more I looked at it, the more interested I became. A British adventurer, a TV-show-host named Bear Grylls, reports happening upon a possible Franklin site, complete with graves, on a tiny island in Wellington Strait, northeast of King William Island. That story turned up in the U.K. in The Independent, and was picked up in Canada in The Gazette. What Grylls did not know was that in May 1859, while searching in this vicinity on behalf of Lady Franklin, explorer Leopold McClintock passed through this strait, which is not to be confused with Wellington Channel. He sledged south along the icy shoreline of King William Island, then crossed the southern part of the strait to the southwest tip of Matty Island. There he found a deserted Inuit village of nearly twenty snowhuts. Also, he discovered "shavings or chips of different kinds of wood from the lost expedition." McClintock tried and failed to find the Inuit who had lived there, and he resumed his southward march. He did not visit the precise area Grylls describes -- though that tiny island would appear to be just a few miles north of the tip of Matty Island. This is intriguing, and worthy of further research.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

How the Scots Invented Canada

Our Hero is heading for Halifax, Montreal, and Sherbooke to launch his new book, How the Scots Invented Canada. On October 12, his 7 p.m. appearance at Woodlawn Public Library (Dartmouth) will be televised for broadcast by Podium TV. Two weeks later, on Oct. 28, Ken will be in Montreal at the Atwater Public Library (12:30 p.m.). And the night after that (Oct. 29), he'll present the book at Bishop's University in Lennoxville, Quebec. In Toronto, Adventure Canada will join publisher HarperCollins Canada in celebrating How the Scots at a party-time venue soon to be revealed -- and you just know that will be a party. Ken is already pumped for next spring, when he will sail around Scotland with Adventure Canada on Celtic Quest: A Voyage Through the Scottish Isles (May 31 - June 10). And before any of this happens, on Sept 15, Ken will drive out to North Bay to talk to the Canadian Club about Sailing in the Northwest Passage: Today and Yesterday

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Our "mystery box" goes national . . .

Click on the above title and look to the right to see how our mystery-box story looked when it turned up on The National . . . All that's left is the Great Reveal, which should happen around Sept. 29 . . .

VIDEO: 3:06

* Franklin Expedition box unearthed An Inuit family says a box that was hidden for more than 80 years in the Arctic contains logbooks linked to the doomed Franklin Expedition, the CBC's Jay Legere reports.

Read more: http://www.cbc.ca/technology/story/2010/09/07/franklin-records.html#ixzz0z2IEgp3M

Monday, September 6, 2010

Arctic mystery box linked to Roald Amundsen

So here's a follow-up article that has been picked up across Canada from Montreal to Vancouver.

By Ken McGoogan
Special to the Gazette

An old wooden box excavated from beneath an Arctic cairn is being flown unopened to Ottawa Monday from the Nunavut hamlet of Gjoa Haven.

The Nunavut-government launched the excavation after an Inuit family relayed oral history suggesting that the cairn contained records from the ill-fated 1845 expedition led by Sir John Franklin in search of the Northwest Passage.

But Canadian historian Kenn Harper, who has spent months researching the cairn, says the box will prove to contain records left in 1905 by explorer Roald Amundsen during the first-ever navigation of the Passage.

The box, which measures 14.5” x 11” x 6.5”, will be opened and its contents preserved at the Canadian Conservation Institute.

Harper, author of the best-selling Inuit biography Give Me My Father’s Body, and also Honorary Danish Consul in Nunavut, says the box contains papers that Amundsen buried after spending almost two years in Gjoa Haven tracking the movements of the North Magnetic Pole.

He began investigating the cairn after learning of the claim by descendants of George Washington Porter II, a Hudson’s Bay Company manager based in that hamlet on King William Island.

Harper says that Eric Mitchell of the HBC, the senior man in the territory, dug up the Amundsen records in 1958, with the help of Porter II. The two men found documents that had first been discovered in 1927 by William “Paddy” Gibson, an HBC inspector who reburied them.

Friday, September 3, 2010

The Holy Grail of Arctic exploration history

The voyage came courtesy of Adventure Canada, which brought me aboard as a resource historian. The Montreal Gazette published the story on Sept. 3. The Vancouver Sun picked it up immediately. The excavation of the cairn may take three or four days.

By Ken McGoogan

Special to the Gazette

GJOA HAVEN, King William Island, Nunavut –

The search for the logbooks of the ill-fated Franklin expedition -- the Holy Grail of Arctic exploration history – has taken on new life.

An Inuit family based in Gjoa Haven, the only settlement near the spot where the 1845 expedition got trapped in the ice, is promising to unearth those logbooks on Saturday (September 4).

Researchers and historians have been searching for the logbooks since the 129-man expedition led by Sir John Franklin disappeared while searching for the Northwest Passage.

The expedition got trapped in pack ice at the northwest corner of King William Island, roughly 160 km from Gjoa Haven. In 1847, 105 sailors endured a horrific march down the west coast of the island before succumbing to scurvy, starvation and lead poisoning. The final survivors resorted to cannibalism.

Wally Porter and Ken
Descendants of George Washington Porter II, a Hudson’s Bay Company manager, say they will excavate the logbooks from beneath a cairn in the centre of Gjoa Haven (pop. 1,100). “Timing is everything,” said family spokesperson Wally Porter. “And the time has come to show the world these logbooks.”

Porter said in a recent interview that his grandfather, Porter II, buried the documents beneath the cairn when it was rebuilt in the late 1950s or early ’60s. The cairn had deteriorated since it was erected in 1944 to commemorate William “Paddy” Gibson, an HBC inspector who had died in a plane crash two years before.

Down through the decades, historians have often speculated that the Inuit on King William Island discovered the logbooks. But until now, the story has been that they scattered the pages to the wind.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Good company for a cross-country road triip

Hitting the Road

Thirteen of Canada’s leading writers pick essential stops on a cross-country literary tour.

It’s summertime. Time to strap on the seat belts and go exploring, across all of this country’s provinces and territories. And we will need some great reading matter to help eat up the kilometres and tell us something essential about the land we are crossing. Thirteen of Canada’s best writers have volunteered to act as literary guides for a patch they’re particularly familiar with in this enormous quilt we live on, so let’s get moving. In honour of Vancouver 2010, we have decided to follow the route (more or less) of the Olympic Torch.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Do I love Switzerland?

BERN -- Start with practicalities, say the transit system. Nothing but gorgeous, hi-tech trams, two or three cars long, bright red, zooming along on schedule to the minute. To the minute! This is the clockwork efficiency you hear so much about. And, okay, what about those public toilets? I am mortified to imagine what the Swiss must think when they go into a urinal at a Canadian railway station, or even at an airport. These places are CLEAN. SPARKLING CLEAN, like they are in your own home and you have guests coming over. The level of maintenance of all things Swiss is impressive, even astonishing. I mean, many of these houses and buildings date from the sixteen or seventeen hundreds, and yet here they stand, erect, entirely usable, fully functioning. In Switzerland, too, as elsewhere in Europe, you can't miss the history . . . . and, indeed, the respect for all things cultural: artists, writers, intellectuals. Respect and, yes, even reverence. Go figure. As for beggars in the street, if you hunt really, really hard, maybe you can find one. In this country, somehow, they keep people from falling fall through the cracks. Do I love Switzerland?

Monday, July 5, 2010

Um, does the author ever get paid?

A recent story in the London Free Press shows why authors are wondering about the way ebooks are rolling into libraries. The future is now, the story tells us, and more and folks are "taking out books electronically, downloading titles from the comfort of their own computers."
At the London Public Library, which is just an example of a trend, the use of ebooks is growing exponentially, with more than 1,000 titles in the electronic catalogue, a number that may very well double in the next year.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Canadian literature in libraries

I recently returned from Ottawa, where as chair of the Public Lending Right Commission, I reported to the board of the Canada Council. My main message? Next year (2011) marks the 25th anniversary of the PLR Program, which recognizes Canadian authors for the presence of their books in libraries. These are still early days. But the idea is to launch a year-long celebration of this crucial support program, and of Canadian literature generally, in Toronto next May. We'll begin with a two-night literary extravaganza, open to the public, at the annual general meeting of the Writers' Union of Canada, and finish in Montreal the following February, with TWUC'S francophone counterpart, UNEQ, hosting a literary finale at the Grande Bibliotecque. In between, the trick will be to mount events across the country (readings, panel discussions, performances) to celebrate Canadian books and authors. Stay tuned.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Spaces are going, going . . .

In fact, already we're eight down, four to go, and as I write we're weeks to deadline. This workshop is heading for capacity. We're talking Narrative Nonfiction at the University of Toronto Summer School July 5 to 9. I've got a new book coming this fall (How the Scots Invented Canada, nice of you to ask), so after this, I'll give teaching a rest until 2011. The great thing about the Summer School is that you not only get panel discussions and readings, but you rub shoulders with all kinds of other writers.
OK, sure, my workshop is the main highlight. But even if you don't manage to latch onto one of those last four spaces, heck, you could probably pick up a few pointers from the likes of Joy Fielding, Ken Babstock, Susan Swan, Peter Robinson, Erika Ritter, Alissa York, Kelley Armstrong, Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer, Randy Boyagoda, Mariko Tamaki, Norman Snider, or Dave Bidini. Yup, it's looking like a party. See ya there.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Kane arrives in Alaska

Review: ‘Race to Polar Sea’ delivers history, adventure
by David A. James / For the Fairbanks News-Miner

FAIRBANKS - “A scientist studying the effects of extreme stress could hardly do better than to confine nineteen men in a cabin and subject them to intense cold and never-ending darkness while attacking them with scurvy and starvation.”

This sentence summarizes the experience readers are in for when they delve into “Race to the Polar Sea,” Canadian author Ken McGoogan’s account of the journeys of American explorer Elisha Kent Kane. McGoogan, who teaches writing in Toronto, is no stranger to arctic history, and he knows how to tell a good story. In Kane he has an ideal topic.

Elisha Kent Kane was born in Philadelphia in 1820, the son of a politically well-connected judge.

Though suffering from rheumatism and a heart arrhythmia, he was determined to make his mark on the world. He studied medicine and enlisted in the Navy, traversing the globe and racking up adventures from Brazil to Egypt to China. He also volunteered for the Mexican- American War, where he demonstrated both valor and compassion. His book about his exploits made him a household name.

But the far north was where he truly earned his fame. In 1850 he signed up for the first Grinnell Expedition, an American attempt at learning the fate of Sir John Franklin, the British explorer who had left to find the Northwest Passage in 1845 and vanished.

Kane served aboard the Advance, one of two ships sent north. Sailing into northeastern Canada, the crew made a brief stop on Beechey Island where they happened upon the graves of three of Franklin’s men.

This was the first sign anyone had found of the lost expedition. After a winter spent locked in the ice, the Advance sailed south with Kane already planning his return trip.

Back in the U.S., Kane raised funds by not only pitching the need to find Franklin, who many believed was still alive, but also to discover what was then known as the Polar Sea. Most experts at the time believed that the Arctic Ocean was ringed by ice, but that open water teaming with wildlife was contained within. It was hoped that by finding an entrance to this sea, the Northwest Passage could finally be located.

While he was busy laying plans, Kane also fell in love with a young woman named Maggie Fox who was widely known through her work as a spirit rapper, a completely fraudulent means of communicating with the dead. Unable to quench his feelings, and despite his family’s sure disapproval, he promised to marry her upon his return.

In 1853 Kane boarded the Advance again, this time as skipper, and headed north. Rather than return to the graves, he pointed his ship up the narrow channel between Greenland and Baffin Island.

The icy water was difficult to navigate, but by hitching to large icebergs that were drifting northward, the ship kept moving. Laying numerous caches along the way, the crew reached Rensselaer Harbor on the Greenland coast, further north than any vessel had previously ventured, before being iced in.

Kane and his crew explored the region, discovering Humboldt Glacier (the world’s largest) in the process. Two of his men also reached open water to the north, suggesting that the rumored Polar Sea existed. But they would become better known for the ordeal that followed than for their discoveries.

Winter aboard the ship was difficult. The men were cramped into a small space, food and fuel had to be rationed, scurvy was endemic, and trips onto the ice were dangerous. The sun vanished for several months and temperatures frequently plunged to 40-below-zero and more. The crew persevered — though not without dissension and a couple of deaths — and by spring the return of the sun brought plans for the journey home.

What Kane and his men failed to anticipate, however, was that they had reached a location where the ice didn’t always melt. As the summer of 1854 passed, the ship remained bound. Faced with another winter in Rensselaer Harbor, an escape using sledges and whaleboats was attempted.

After failing and retreating to the Advance, the men confronted the grim reality of another long winter.

Eight of them, unwilling to accept this fate, abandoned the rest and headed south.

On board the ship the situation grew ever more dire. Food was in short supply, the ship itself had to cannibalized for firewood, scurvy and frostbite ate away at the men’s bodies, and the cold was even more severe than the previous winter. To top it off, the defectors returned after failing to escape, further diminishing the short supplies.

What kept the men alive was Kane’s ability to establish relations with a band of Inuit who had migrated into the area. By trading goods for food and dogs, he kept most of his men alive, but just barely.

By spring, the only hope for survival lay in a perilous 1,300-mile journey to Upernavik, Greenland over ice and open water, again using sledges and whaleboats. For healthy men this would have been extremely challenging. That Kane’s depleted crew managed it with only one death staggers the imagination.

Kane returned to America a hero, wrote a bestselling account of his journey, and married Maggie Fox.

But his ill health struck him down less than two years later.

Kane has since fallen prey to considerable criticism by historians, and McGoogan has attempted here to restore his good name.

The result is a book that’s a bit too uncritical. Kane had more faults than McGoogan seems willing to acknowledge. But this account is nonetheless quite extraordinary.

McGoogan leaves no doubt that, by any measure, Kane was one of the greatest 19th century Arctic explorers.

David A. James lives in Fairbanks.

Race to the Polar Sea Ken McGoogan Counterpoint, 404 pages 2008, $15.95

Friday, April 9, 2010

Oh Whitman, my Whitman!

Walt Whitman's Secret, by George Fetherling, Random House Canada, 350 pages, $32.

Reviewed by Ken McGoogan

Globe and Mail Update Published on Friday, Apr. 09, 2010

Nothing in the previous work of George Fetherling has prepared us for this. The man has written dozens of books, among them biographies, histories, contemporary novels, collections of essays and poems, and that autobiographical classic Travels by Night: A Memoir of the Sixties. But none of them approaches Walt Whitman's Secret in ambition or achievement.

With this historical novel, the author sets out to change the way we see a major literary figure, the poet whose Leaves of Grass has attracted the attention of generations of scholars and readers. The result is a stunning success. While remaining within the known facts about the life of Walt Whitman (1819-1892), at least as far as a non-specialist can tell, Fetherling has delivered an imaginative triumph by implicating Whitman in the political action of his times. In the end, the poet's vaunted innocence looks more like a pose.

Such enthusiasm demands full disclosure. Like most published writers in Canada, I do know George Fetherling. We met in the 1970s when he was still “Douglas” and we both worked at The Toronto Star. Over the decades, we have had coffee or lunch six or eight times, and I was one of 60 people invited to his 60th-birthday celebration at Massey College.

Discount this assessment if you must. In my view, Fetherling chose a brilliant narrative strategy. Like F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby, he presents a first-person account by an eyewitness, a minor character who, in this case, has a remarkable presence in the historical record. Though we discover his identity only gradually, the narrator is Horace Traubel, the real-life author of Walt Whitman in Camden, a nine-volume biography that focuses on the poet's final years. Traubel, who considered himself Whitman's “spirit child,” visited the poet almost daily from the mid-1880s until his death, and developed his multi-volume portrait from detailed notes of their conversations.

Fetherling creates a subtle tension between Whitman, the keeper of a dark secret, and Traubel, the much younger disciple obsessed with dragging it into the light. That tension keeps us turning pages. Early on, Traubel tells us that “the skeleton in W's closet was not the one outsiders suspected.” Rather, “the supposed revelation W was at such pains to hide from the public while being compelled to reveal it in his work was actually not a secret in the least, but a commonplace truth for limited circulation.” Yes, Walt Whitman was gay. But to the discerning, that was no secret.

Readers who flip through the novel seeking a sentence or a paragraph that reveals Whitman's secret will search in vain. A skilled and sophisticated writer, Fetherling is far beyond such awkward blundering. Whitman's secret concerns U.S. president Abraham Lincoln, and the only rough patch in this otherwise seamless narrative occurs when the author begins weaving it into the fabric.

From the first page on, Traubel addresses “Flora,” who is based on the real-life Flora MacDonald Denison, a Canadian suffragist, radical journalist and admirer of Whitman. This enables Fetherling to introduce a striking Canadian dimension and, more important, to speak intimately of his subject in bringing him to vivid life.

Traubel describes how, for example, when he enters the poet's room, Whitman tells him to throw his hat on the bedpost: “You see, he often hung his trousers in that manner, though his own hat, the soft gray sloucher with the high crown and the sweat stains, lay as usual on the round table by the window, holding down a stack of loose documents. … He had taken off his boots of course but otherwise had fallen asleep fully dressed. The evening was warm and muggy, but he shuffled across the plank floor, struck a match on the side of the stove and tossed it in the firebox.”

As this brief quotation suggests, Fetherling has not only found the perfect point-of-view character, but has given him a credible, entertaining voice. This is especially impressive considering that the narrator is writing, ostensibly, in 1918. When the poet shows him a nude photo of himself, Traubel writes: “I was shocked, for though I had frequently seen him in dishabille, I certainly had never lain eyes on his generative appendage.”

Fetherling also lets Whitman speak for himself, as when the poet comments on a painting by Thomas Eakins of a group of nude boys cavorting on the banks of a river: “They remind us how like a piece of fruit the body is, reaching the perfect state of ripeness that is all too brief. Eakins caught them at that moment, before they had any awareness that the ultimate end of the process is to rot and fall from the branch.”

Walt Whitman's Secret is an adult novel. In pace as in language, it evokes another age. Resolutely unfashionable, utterly convincing, it is a resonant, shimmering work that stakes a claim on posterity.

Ken McGoogan, vice-chairman of the Public Lending Right Commission, has been known to kick off presentations by quoting from Whitman's Song of the Open Road. This autumn, he will publish How the Scots Invented Canada.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Arctic Labyrinths

In the first issue of Canada's History, the magazine formerly known as The Beaver, our hero reviews a pair of books. . . .

Arctic Labyrinth by Gwyn Williams,
and Joseph-Elzéar Bernier by Marjolaine Saint-Pierre

Reviewed by Ken McGoogan

In his 1908 book about navigating the Northwest Passage, Roald Amundsen explicitly credited the Scottish-Orcadian explorer Dr. John Rae with having shown him where to sail. “His work was of incalculable value to the Gjoa expedition,” Amundsen wrote. “He discovered Rae Strait which separates King William Land from the mainland. In all probability through this strait is the only navigable route for the voyage round the north coast of America. This is the only passage which is free from destructive pack ice.”

Amundsen, the first to sail through the passage — he went from the Atlantic to the Pacific — would remain correct in this assessment for four decades. Not until 1944 would Canadian Henry Larsen, assisted by later technology, become the first to sail the passage using a different route.

Yet in Arctic Labyrinth: The Quest for the Northwest Passage, you will look in vain for the above quotation from Amundsen. In this otherwise impressive survey, historian Glyn Williams gives John Rae no credit for discovering the channel that made the Norwegian’s historic voyage possible.

He tells us that George Back of the Royal Navy and Thomas Simpson of the Hudson’s Bay Company suspected the existence of Rae Strait. But instead of crediting John Rae himself at the appropriate juncture, he quotes Amundsen in praise of Royal Navy Captain Richard Collinson and moves on.

History is always subject to interpretation, and here we see that even distinguished scholars have biases. Williams, an emeritus professor based in London, has written several notable books over the decades. These include both academic studies and popular works on Captain James Cook and Arctic exploration in the eighteenth century.

In Arctic Labyrinth, Williams retells an epic saga marked by shipwreck, starvation, scurvy, frostbite, amputations, and Orcadi an expedition,” probability cannibalism. He writes in a tradition that includes In Quest of the Northwest Passage by Leslie H. Neatby, Arctic Grail by Pierre Berton, and The Search for the North West Passage by Ann Savours.

His book is more detailed than Neatby’s and less lively than Berton’s. He essentially follows Savours from the nineteenth century onwards, and con¬tributes most in relation to the earlier periods — some of which he treated in Voyages of Delusion: The Quest for the Northwest Passage.

The author’s decades-long immer¬sion in exploration history enables him to turn up the occasional nugget. With regard to the five men who disappeared from Martin Frobisher’s 1576 expedition, for example, he reminds us that the later reports of Charles Francis Hall, taken from the Inuit, suggest that those sailors were not murdered after all, as is fre¬quently alleged, but lived peaceably for a winter and then tried to sail away home.

Towards the end of Arctic Labyrinth, noting that Britain ceded its Arctic ter¬ritories to Canada in 1880, Williams touches on the three voyages under¬taken on behalf of the Canadian gov¬ernment by Joseph-Elzéar Bernier. He rightly describes Bernier, a French Cana¬dian born in 1852, as sailing “to confirm Canadian sovereignty over the Arctic archipelago at a time when the nationals of other powers were increasingly active in the region.”

Bernier’s greatest moment came on July 1, 1909, when he erected a plaque at Winter Harbour on Melville Island in the Northwest Passage, first reached from the Atlantic by William Edward Parry in 1819. In Joseph-Elzéar Bernier: Champion of Canadian Sovereignty, biog¬rapher Marjolaine Saint-Pierre wisely lets Bernier himself describe that occa¬sion. The captain and his men drank a toast to the Dominion and the prime minister, and “then all assembled around Parry’s Rock to witness the unveiling of a tablet placed at the Rock, commemo¬rating the annexing of the whole of the Arctic archipelago.”

Saint-Pierre’s book includes a rare and spectacular photo of this occasion — one that, had it been spotted ear¬lier, would almost certainly have been included in the recent book 100 Photos That Changed Canada. This group shot at Parry’s Rock is one of more than two hundred black-and-white illustrations included in Saint-Pierre’s work, which looks to be the definitive biography of Bernier.

Ably translated by William Barr, overwhelming in detail, the book traces Bernier’s career from ancestry to legacy. It highlights his hopes of becoming the first to reach the North Pole and the first to sail through the Northwest Passage in a single season. Saint-Pierre shows how government indifference thwarted these dreams.

In his three main voyages, which he undertook between 1906 and 1911, Bernier charted no new lands. But he gathered records left by explorers of the previous century, set up new cairns and monuments, and raised the Canadian flag throughout the Arctic. By these symbolic actions, he strengthened Can¬ada’s claims to the Arctic archipelago.

Both these books belong in the library of any Arctic aficionado.

— Ken McGoogan (Read Bio)

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Nervous Breakdown Interview

Our hero turns up at The Nervous Breakdown,
a wonderfully edgy site based in California. Here, besides
the self-interview (punch that link) and the travel yarn below,
you can find excerpts and more links. Hey, you gotta love it!

Following in the Wake of Elisha Kent Kane
10 March 2010

During our first morning in the High Arctic, a polar bear drove us off Beechey Island. We had been walking along the snow-dusted beach where, in 1850, American explorer Elisha Kent Kane discovered the graves of the first three sailors to die during the tragic 1845 expedition of Sir John Franklin.

Kane, serving as doctor with the First U.S. Grinnell Expedition, had been standing with a couple of British officers on the icy, snow-covered shores of Beechey when a sailor came stumbling over a ridge, hollering: “Graves! Graves! Franklin’s winter quarters!”

Kane led his fellow searchers in scrambling over the ice to the makeshift cemetery where we had previously lingered. “Here, amid the sterile uniformity of snow and slate,” he wrote later, “were the headboards of three graves, made after the old orthodox fashion of gravestones at home [in Philadelphia].”

A few of us had had begun walking along the beach towards the ridge where Franklin’s crew had piled tin cans filled with pebbles, intending to use them as ballast. The polar bear, which had been loitering at water's edge half a mile away, began trotting around a curved bay in our direction.

This one-ton creature, we knew, could outrun a race horse. So we scrambled aboard the Zodiacs, the inflatable craft in which we had landed on the beach. No sooner had we fired up the engines than the bear stopped running. It stood a moment gazing at us, then turned and shambled off over a hill.

History said goodbye to the natural world. But both would be back, and the meeting and mingling of distinct northern dimensions would prove characteristic of our two-week expedition.

This "High Arctic Adventure," mounted jointly by Quark Expeditions of Connecticut and Toronto-based Adventure Canada, attracted eighty-seven passengers – most from North America (New Mexico to Newfoundland) but some from England, France, Switzerland, and Australia. Everyone had travelled to Ottawa, then caught a charter flight to Resolute Bay in Nunavut, where we had hopped into Zodiacs, boarded the Akademic Ioffe and settled into cosy cabins.

The Ioffe is no fancy passenger liner but an expeditionary vessel built and operated by Russians. Still, it offers radically different conditions than those faced by the early explorers. In 1853, when he led the Second U.S. Grinnell Expedition north to search for Franklin and the Open Polar Sea, Elisha Kent Kane sailed in the sail-powered Advance – an eighty-eight-foot brigantine that weighed 144 tons. The diesel-driven Ioffe, by comparison, is 384 feet long and weighs 6,450 tons – almost forty-five times the weight of the little wooden Advance.

One hundred and fifty-five years ago, after waving to a last group of whalers off the coast of southern Greenland, Kane lost contact with the outside world. He got trapped in the multi-year ice and, to survive, had to lead a spectacular escape using sledges and small boats. On the Ioffe, we had satellite telephones and email and could have summoned helicopters or other vessels in the event of emergency.

Where Kane battled scurvy and starvation, we ate three square meals a day in a full-service dining room and enjoyed snacks and single malt scotch in a comfortable lounge. The superbly literate American explorer, who came from a prominent Philadelphia family, entertained his men by declaiming the poetry of Alfred Tennyson.

The Ioffe carried a dozen resource people. These included two Inuit (Eskimos) from South Baffin Island; a Sante Fe-based art historian, Carol Heppenstall, who is a leading interpreter of aboriginal art; a marine biologist, an archaeologist, an ornithologist and a narrative historian (yours truly) who, with Berkeley-based Counterpoint Press, has just published a book called Race to the Polar Sea: The Heroic Adventures of Elisha Kent Kane.

For some passengers, the expedition was mainly about culture. Meeka and Jamesie Mike outlined the rudiments of the Inuktitut language and demonstrated how to hitch a dog team. And on the north coast of Baffin Island, we visited Pond Inlet and Clyde River, where we heard throat-singing, played Inuit games, and hosted a community barbecue. Along the way, we bought Inuit carvings and craft products and the Mikes raised $15,000 for a cultural "core knowledge" initiative.

For a second group of passengers, the expedition was mainly about the Arctic outdoors. At Croker Bay, we cruised along a glacier face and among spectacular icebergs. At seven or eight locations, we spotted polar bears, usually but not always alone, and a couple of those creatures clearly perceived us as seals wrapped in goretex.

While traipsing around Devon Island, we drew within a couple of hundred yards of a herd of muskox – as close as anyone wanted to get. And at a walrus haul-out near Monumental Island, while riding in Zodiacs, we drew so near a herd of one hundred walrus that people were gagging at the smell.

History buffs, too, had their moments. That first morning on Beechey, after fleeing the polar bear, we puttered east along the coast to Cape Riley and put in at the ruins of Northumberland House. Here, in the early 1850s, a British search expedition built a storehouse to serve Franklin, should he ever reappear. The rough structure remains visible, though now it lies in ruins, surrounded by rusty tin cans and barrel staves.

On Day Six of the voyage, we visited Dundas Harbour on Devon Island, the largest uninhabited island in the world. Here, from 1924 to 1933, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police maintained a post comprising a house and three or four outbuildings, all of which remain standing.

At this same site, but seven decades previously, in 1853, an adventurous shaman from Baffin Island met the Franklin-searcher Edward Inglefield, who had sailed north into Smith Sound to 78 degrees 28 minutes. Kane would exceed that latitude by about 12 minutes (14 statute miles).

On the Ioffe, the history-minded were hoping to equal or better Kane’s high-latitude mark – a realistic objective given that the multi-year ice in the Arctic is a far cry from what it was in the mid-nineteenth century.

But on Day Six, at four o'clock in the morning, the captain found himself driving north against storm force winds gusting to fifty knots. The temperature of the sea water had fallen to within one degree of freezing, and the ship had started to ice up. Given time, and because the water ahead lay open, the captain might have put into a sheltered bay, waited out the storm and then pushed on. But at 77 degrees 25 minutes, about eighty-five miles short of Kane’s mark, he turned the Ioffe around and sailed south.

For many on board, major highlights were yet to come. My own favourite moment of the expedition came on Day Nine in the middle of Clyde Inlet, off the north coast of Baffin Island. The expedition's finest Zodiac driver, John "Flipper" Suta, had agreed to convey me to Clyde River because I had to do a series of radio interviews.

Within minutes, in the fog and waves, we had lost sight of the ship. We passed a few icebergs, nothing huge, and Flipper got the Zodiac pounding along at fifteen or twenty miles an hour. Five or six miles from the ship, with the waves and rolling swells reaching a height of eight to ten feet, so that roaring over them felt like riding a roller-coaster, an image came to me unsought.

The scale was smaller, but yes, we were climbing upwards against one of the giant waves that featured in The Perfect Storm. When we crested that magnificent swell and started down the other side, I heard someone laughing a wild-sounding, crazy-man laugh and wondered who it was. I glanced over at Flipper and, in that instant, with a rush of exhilaration, recognized the insane laughter as my own.

Watch a video here.

Ken McGoogan sails as a resource historian with Adventure Canada.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Who owns the Arctic?

Meanwhile, at the Globe and Mail, we find a review of
Who Owns the Arctic? Understanding Sovereignty Disputes in the North, by Michael Byers, Douglas & McIntyre, 147 pages, $22.95

Reviewed by Ken McGoogan

Published on Monday, Jan. 18, 2010

For Arctic explorers seeking to enter the Northwest Passage from the Atlantic, one of the challenges came early in any voyage: In Davis Strait, the only way to reach Lancaster Sound, they had to cross or go around the so-called Middle Ice. This vast, floating expanse of pack ice, dotted with massive icebergs and rolling “growlers,” has trapped or wrecked scores of vessels down through the centuries.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Creative Non-fiction, anyone?

Back by popular demand: my advanced workshop in Creative Non-fiction at University of Toronto. What the heck is CNF, anyway? We hear the term applied to all kinds of writing. How does Creative Non-fiction differ from journalism? From academic writing? From short stories and novels? Is it okay to mix and match? Why does Our Hero prefer the term "Narrative Non-fiction?"

I came to CNF in the late 1990s when, while writing a book called Fatal Passage, I began bringing together everything I had learned from publishing three novels and thousands of journalistic articles. Short answer to FAQs: Yes, autobiography and memoir belong to the genre, and so does the research-based narrative.

My workshops are you-focused, you-driven. Tell me a true story. I lead discussions and in-class "workouts." In responding to works-in-progress, I am craft-oriented (I have spent crazy amounts of time thinking about craft). This advanced session runs eight weeks, Tuesday nights from 6:30 to 9, starting Feb. 2, 2010. Registration is open (http://learn.utoronto.ca/site3.aspx). Administrative questions, contact bill.zaget@utoronto.ca. Content queries, drop me an email.