Saturday, 30 May 2015

Barrow's Boys by Fergus Fleming

I have been putting off reviewing this book for so long! There's nothing wrong with it. (that would have made it easy to review.) I just kept passing it by and passing it by, and now we're at the point where I usually write blog posts a week before I post them, and we're now several days past when I was planning on publishing this.

In my defense, my sister got married a couple of days ago and I've been a little busy. And I'm about to head off to an academic conference, so more busy. Still, Megan, sit down and write a bloody review!

Maybe I should talk about the book. That would be a good start, right?

Barrow's Boys. It's nonfiction. It's about explorers funded by the Royal Navy (mostly under the urging of Barrow), including the most famously ill-fated Franklin Expedition. Fleming does a really excellent job of writing about these often disastrous trips engagingly, with some snark and well-deserved English sarcasm directly from some of the correspondents involved.

I knew little about this era of exploration, and it was entertaining to read about it. It was also a happy coincidence that I read this while I was going through my long slog of Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon, and jaunt through Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness, and both make references to people who popped up in this book, and that helped a lot with context.

What's most striking is how much class status was valued over experience in early exploring efforts, with the assumption being that experience was no match for being born to the right family. With predictable results, often resulting in death. You just want to shake your head at many of these people, although they perhaps had to be a little mad to want to strike off in uncertain conditions with inadequate preparation and supplies.

I knew little about the Franklin expeditions that merely ended in malnutrition, madness, possible cannibalism and shoe-eating, but gave up some survivors. Nor did I know about the ill-fated and wrong-headed expeditions to find the source of the Niger in entirely the wrong spot.

Nor about the better-fated Antarctic expeditions, or the infighting between the various Rosses and the Rosses and everyone else.

Really, it's a fairly entertaining book. It's not going to rock my world, but it did give some great context to some other things I was reading. The lessons here shouldn't be "silly people not knowing where the Niger was," although I do think "idiots for thinking a whaler with decades of experience knew less about Arctic ice than a gentleman who'd never been there" is justifiable.

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