Let's be honest, our awareness of the Canadian northern region doesn't extend much farther than Edmonton. Frankly, it's too damn cold to contemplate but oddly enough the Arctic is a defining Canadian characteristic.
Back in the day of stylish beaver hats and pre-Confederation, any British explorer with enough tea and a sturdy ship was hell-bent on finding the Northwest Passage. Perhaps the most famous of these explorers is Sir John Franklin, captain of the fatal 1845 voyage. However, as we learn in Fatal Passage they never did find the passage and instead succumbed to lead poisoning and cannibalism. But Franklin's ill-fated voyage is only a bit player in Ken McGooan's Arctic biography.
Instead it's the story of John Rae, a Scottish Hudson's Bay Company officer who explored and lived in the harsh wilderness with more successes than most. In some ways, Rae was the consummate Canadian. He could snowshoe long distances, live off the Arctic land and make friends with the Inuit he met on his journeys.
Rae discovered the last link of the Northwest Passage but was swept aside in the history books due to the smear campaign of Franklin's widow. Lady Franklin even hired Charles Dickens to criticize Rae, and upon returning to England, the press glossed over his discovery and jumped on the cannibalism angle --no doubt at Lady Franklin's urging. They painted the Inuit as the savages and blamed them for Franklin's death, instead of his incompetence.
When reading Fatal Passage, one never understands why McGoogan admires Rae so much. As a result, we never understand Rae himself. Who was he? Was he an arrogant driven man or a stoic Scottish explorer? Unfortunately McGoogan doesn't give the reader enough material to draw a conclusion. The snippets from Rae's journal never convey Rae's true nature or the hardships of the Arctic. After reading Fatal Passage, you might be tempted to book your next vacation there--Rae makes it look too easy to hang out in the Arctic.
McGooan also assumes too much. Remember how most people never think much of the Arctic? McGoogan doesn't set up the historical context such that most readers will be left floundering or not caring. Each of Rae's discoveries evokes a memory of social studies class.
Nonetheless, the pace of Fatal Passages picks up by the book's midpoint. Rae has by now discovered Franklin's fate and the Northwest Passage. He must now face the uncertain social wilderness of a London even more dangerous than the Arctic. The fallout from his HBC report is ultimately more entertaining than any of his igloo-building stories--which is too bad.
It sometimes feels like Canadian history is dry and unexciting. There's a hole in the Canadian psyche that could be filled by tales of Arctic explorers. But unfortunately for Rae and McGoogan, the "Canadian Heritage Moment" generation won't sit still for them.