Best books about the Franklin expedition?
December 28, 2020 5:08 PM   Subscribe

I just finished watching The Terror and now I'm curious to read more about the Franklin expedition. According to Google, there are three million books on the subject, so I was wondering which ones are the best for a general reader. Any recommendations?
  • readable prose is important
  • in-depth descriptions of each part of the ship, not as important

posted by betweenthebars to Writing & Language (14 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Frozen in Time: The Fate of the Franklin Expedition by Owen Beattie and John Geiger is excellent. Beattie is one of the scientists who went north and dug up the Franklin Expedition's crewmembers' graves, so the book's modern day info is first hand. The book doesn't really have a running narrative of the expedition, but it does explain what the limited historical record and clues found in the modern day indicate likely happened to Franklin and his men. The book also gives an overview of arctic exploration in the 19th Century, the problems associated with it, and how they would have caused the expedition to fail so completely.

It's almost January, the perfect time to join Sir Franklin and the crews of HMS Cerebus and Terror in... "the desert of silence."
posted by Stuka at 5:37 PM on December 28, 2020 [3 favorites]

Best answer: The ones I went with were:

Finding Franklin: The Untold Story of a 165 Year Search by Russell A. Potter

Good factual account of the various searches over the years, and the unfolding understanding of what happened. Has an epilogue describing the finding of the Erebus, but ends there.

Frozen in Time: The Fate of the Franklin Expedition by Owen Beattie and John Geiger

A more direct narrative of the expedition, followed by a writeup of the scientific investigations performed on the remains that were found. (There continues to be some argument and controversy around the findings.)

Erebus: One Ship, Two Epic Voyages, and the Greatest Naval Mystery of All Time by Michael Palin (yes, that Michael Palin)

Well written account of the expedition, with bonus history about the Erebus's career before her final journey.

Captain Francis Crozier: Last Man Standing by Michael Smith

Interesting biography of Crozier.
posted by LadyOscar at 5:46 PM on December 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

I'm struggling to remember how I would've read so much about this voyage before I read the 2007 The Terror novel while on nautical history kick which carried me into the Franklin Expedition story. I know it was a lot of online stuff, though, not books; back then I had a job where I could listen to audiobooks all day while counting money.

If I were you, I'd crack the cover of Erebus: The Story of a Ship. Ship biographies can be pretty interesting, like Billy Ruffian, about the storied HMS Bellerophon. And this one on HMS Erebus is written by Michael Palin, one of the great comedy (both performing and writing) talents of the 20th century, so it's guaranteed to be readable.

Also, a redditor quotes the entirety of the Acknowledgements page appended to Dan Simmons' book, which includes at the top these 3 books, as follows:

> Three books that were especially important to me in the early stages of research were Ice Blink: The Tragic Fate of Sir John Franklin’s Lost Polar Expedition by Scott Cookman (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., © 2000);
Frozen in Time: The Fate of the Franklin Expedition by Owen Beattie and John Geiger (Greystone Books, Douglas & McIntyre, © 1987); and
The Arctic Grail: The Quest for the Northwest Passage and the North Pole, 1818–1909 by Pierre Berton (Second Lyons Press Edition, © 2000)

posted by Sunburnt at 5:47 PM on December 28, 2020

Re: Palin's book, it appears I have given you the UK title (Erebus: The Story of a Ship) and LadyOscar has given you the American title (Erebus: One Ship, Two Epic Voyages, and the Greatest Naval Mystery of All Time). Same book, as far as I can tell.
posted by Sunburnt at 5:51 PM on December 28, 2020

The Arctic Grail: The Quest for the Northwest Passage and the North Pole, 1818–1909 by Pierre Berton

I read this book and can endorse it. While it is not exclusively about Franklin's expedition, there is a lot about it.
posted by thelonius at 6:33 PM on December 28, 2020 [2 favorites]

Best answer:

Louie Kamookak, the inuk elder, did much of the work of recovering the Franklin, and his voice must be absosrbed.

This is a good collection of oral histories
posted by PinkMoose at 7:02 PM on December 28, 2020 [6 favorites]

I would strongly recommend Fatal Passage - by Ken McGoogan which is about under-appreciated Orcadian explorer, John Rae. Rae was a medic who became surgeon to the Hudson Bay Company. He uncovered the two most important mysteries in the region: firstly the location of the last navigable link that would complete the North West Passage - and secondly the fate of the missing Franklin expedition: claiming the prize for doing so.

The fact that he is thus not a much better known figure stems from his falling fowl of various influential Victorian figures in Britain at the time: notably Sir Charles Dickens and Lady Jane Franklin. Rae's achievements came from listening carefully to indigenous people at a time when others were not. From them he picked up the sort of survival skills that allowed him to become one of the first Europeans to be able to survive winter in the high Arctic without a supply ship. Rae learnt about the Franklin expedition's fate from local inuit contacts. His report to the British admiralty included the detail that the expedition members had resorted to cannibalism - and this did not go down at all well with Franklin's backers in London.

Thanks to the influence of these people Rae received no knighthoods or other recognition for his achievements. But, I think now we can see how far ahead of his time he was. And he does have an absolutely un-missable tomb in St Magnus' Cathedral, Orkney. Seeing this tomb was how I became curious about him.
posted by rongorongo at 10:24 PM on December 28, 2020 [3 favorites]

Best answer: (Please imagine these as being shouted up by someone who is a long way down (but certainly not at the bottom) of the Franklin Expedition nerdery rabbit hole, who was part-way down that rabbit hole when she read The Terror ten years ago, was generally appreciative of the efforts made by the series regarding history but still has a tendency to mutter things like "that tin opener hadn't been invented yet".)

Things that have not yet been recced:
- Unravelling the Franklin Mystery: Inuit Testimony by David C. Woodman (mentioned in PinkMoose's first link) is excellent.
- James Fitzjames: The Mystery Man of the Franklin Expedition by William Battersby was liberally mined by the series' writers for Fitzjames' character, so I'd particularly reccomend this one if you're interested in him.
- Fatal Passage by Ken McGoogan - about John Rae, who of early searchers probably found the most about the lost expedition, and because he mentioned cannibalism was completely condemned. [Edit: what RongoRongo said]
- Barrow's Boys by Fergus Fleming - this is a big book about the wildly random, often just plain wtf naval expeditions championed by Sir John Barrow, the Franklin Expedition being the last.

My thoughts on ones recced above that I've read:
- Michael Palin's Erebus is a cracking read (he reads the audiobook as well) and would be my first reccomendation for that reason alone. There are some criticisms of it from some experts, but writing this for the life of me I can't remember what they are...
- Finding Franklin - exactly what LadyOscar said
- Frozen in Time is good and I would say to read it, but to bear in mind that a number of the authors' conclusions have been challenged or overturned in the thirty years since publication.
- Ice Blink: not reccomended. Speculative, old, story told better by other books.

I think the three I'd pick out and the order that I'd suggest to read them in would be Erebus; Unravelling the Franklin Mystery; Finding Franklin.
posted by Vortisaur at 10:26 PM on December 28, 2020 [5 favorites]

Seconding Barrow's was my gateway drug to Arctic exploration books (like Vortisaur says, it also details many other expeditions, including Franklin's first, which was also a complete disaster and and even more dramatic story, as well as all of the British voyages in search of the source of the Nile), and unfortunately it was also the best one I ever read so I was forever chasing the dragon after that. It's one of the best non-fiction books on any topic I've ever read.
posted by The Card Cheat at 7:07 AM on December 29, 2020

So, slightly off topic but In the Kingdom of Ice about the polar expedition of the USS Jeanette in 1879 is fantastic. A guy pisses on a grand piano pretty early on IIRC.
posted by freecellwizard at 3:47 PM on December 29, 2020

Here to recommend Erebus: One Ship, Two Epic Voyages, and the Greatest Naval Mystery of All Time. Also, I was reading The Terror while living in a tent in a very remote part of western Washington. I stayed up super late reading and jumping at every creaking tree and moving shadow, them woke up to the news that the ship had been found! It made the hair on the back of my neck stand up in a very satisfying way.
posted by easy, lucky, free at 5:24 PM on December 29, 2020 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for all the recommendations! I am just finishing up James Fitzjames: Man of Mystery and even though it was not the best place to start (at some points the author is clearly fighting with books I haven't yet read), even that has cleared up some parts of The Terror that were a mystery to me. For example, I was mystified by the carnival, but now that I know Fitzjames was a flamboyant dude with a pet cheetah, that bad choice seems plausible.

Next up is Erebus: Book with a Long Title by That Michael Palin, and then Frozen in Time, Encounters on the Passage, and Barrow's Boys will be read whenever the library has them.
posted by betweenthebars at 3:00 PM on December 30, 2020

For example, I was mystified by the carnival
Threadsitting here, but you definitely need to read other books on this list - a midwinter benjo of some sort happened on all the polar expeditions that we are aware of. The implausibility in the Terror is that (a) they seem to have not had one in the previous winters and (b) Francis "dragged up and taking the first dance with James Clark Ross in the Antarctic" Crozier being apparently not on board with this.
posted by Vortisaur at 5:10 AM on January 3, 2021

Response by poster: I was confused by Fictional Fitzjames setting up the something as chaotic as the carnival because he just seemed tall and repressed and that his idea of fun would be highly organised, like putting on a play and making sure that everyone actually remembered their lines.

(I've been reading through the books suggested here and am a little embarrassed at how many I've got through in the past five days. I feel like it was both a brilliant and terrible use of my free week.)
posted by betweenthebars at 6:11 PM on January 3, 2021

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