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Friday, January 30, 2009

Frozen in Time

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

My interlibrary loans came in earlier this week, so I finally got my hands on Frozen in Time.

The first portion of the book tells the story (in a concise manner) of the Franklin Expedition and its disappearance, giving a brief account of some of the rescue missions and what those missions discovered. After reading Resolute which had so much information and so many names that it would be almost impossible to take it all in, I enjoyed having the information in such a concise form. (This by no means is a reflection on Resolute, just that this book gave a succinct version of the history before moving on to the contemporary portion).

The second portion of the book examines anthropologist Owen Beattie's trips to the arctic (1981-1985) to solve the mystery of how and why so many died in such horrific circumstances.

In 1984, the first of 3 well-preserved bodies was exhumed, and the labor that went into digging up that first grave, buried deep in the permafrost; the time involved in thawing it sufficiently; and the autopsy itself has a strange and disorienting effect on the reader. The first body recovered was that of John Torrington, and it was so astonishingly well-preserved, that the easy distance that can be maintained with skeletal material is simply impossible.

The following summer, the bodies of John Hartnell and William Braine were exhumed and autopsied, as painstakingly as that of John Torrington had been. The results of the autopsies and forensic investigation supported Beattie's theory of lead poisoning from poorly sealed canned foods having contributed to the deaths of the officers and crews of the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror.

Lead poisoning would also have interfered with the thinking process and could have been responsible for the wrong decisions at crucial moments. The expedition failed for a variety of reasons including scurvy and starvation, but the bodies and minds of the men were being weakened by lead poisoning from the moment they set sail.

The photographs of the frozen bodies are eerie and disturbing, yet compelling. The men had been dead 140 years when they were exhumed, but seeing them in the "flesh" brings the human possibility for tragedy poignantly to the surface.

Margaret Atwood included a chapter about Frozen in Time in her book, Writing with Intent.

**Interesting details that relate to Dan Simmon's novel The Terror:

  • In M'Clintock's 1859 attempt to discover something that would help solve the mystery, he found a notebook belonging to Harry Peglar. Two different handwritings were in the notebook, but only one important (and coherent) passage referred to their situation: "Oh Death whare is they sting, the grave at Comfort Cove for who has any doubt how...the dyer sad..." The message took time to decipher because most of the words were written backwards. Simmons made use of this in his novel, creating an engrossing storyline for the two men who wrote in the actual notebook.
  • A photograph of Dr. Harry D.S. Goodsir, one of my favorite characters in the novel; I had seen pictures and photographs of Sir John Franklin, Captain Francis Crozier, and Lt. Fitzjames before. However, since young Dr. Goodsir played an important role in Simmon's novel, I was pleased to find his photograph.
  • The Beattie expedition discovered that John Torrington's body had been autopsied before burial, another fact that Simmon's included in his novel.
Nonfiction. History/Anthropology. 1987. 168 pages.


  1. The so-called "Peglar Papers" are an endless source of fascination. Truth be told, they have never been fully deciphered; I myself have spent many long hours with the original documents, which are in the Caird Library at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. The passage "O Death whare is thy sting" comes of course from the Book of Common Prayer's service for the burial of the dead; "Comfort Cove" (also known as 'Comfortless Cove') is a place on Ascension Island in the midst of the Atlantic, where victims of contagious diseases who had died on board ship were buried. As a historian, I'm a bit dissatisfied with Simmons's use of these papers, but they certainly are intriguing and ripe for fictional use! More about the Franklin expedition can be found at my website,

    Russell Potter

  2. Profrap - Thanks for commenting! I can't imagine the fascination of being able to study the original documents. I appreciate your filling me in on the source of the quote, "Comfort Cove," and Ascension Island--more places to explore through my reading.

    I can understand your being dissatisfied with some of the fictional interpretations and often feel the same way if I've read the nonfiction first. Then I'm terribly affronted at changes.

    On the other hand, fiction so often leads me into my most interesting journeys. After reading a fictional account, finding facts that correspond to the fiction is a source of pleasure.

    The Terror has led me on my own reading itinerary about a subject that previously had no interest for me. I'd never even heard of the Franklin Expedition, and the book led to a great discussion with my husband who was familiar with it. After that my curiosity took over.

    I posted a link to the Nova slide show when I reviewed The Terror. Looked up Welsh Wigs and Holland Tents in another post. Ordered the Nova documentary,watched it and found that Roald Amundsen's trip was fascinating, too. Read Resolution and got side-tracked with Elisha Kent Kane and the Fox sisters. Discovered Shackleton and added a book to his antarctic voyage to my TBR list.

    When I read your comment, I was especially pleased because I had visited your site and recognized your connection to the Nova Documentary.

    Thanks again for taking the time to comment, to give more information, and to add the link to your website!

  3. I'm really enjoying all your posts and reading about the Franklin expedition. I hadn't heard of it until a brief mention in Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild. Thanks for another good review and interesting information.

  4. SuziQ - I wasn't familiar with the story, either, but I've been amazed at how many people are familiar with it. I guess Canadians learn about it in history books, but the disappearance of the two ships and the many search missions captures the imaginations of many. Krakaur is on my list, too.