The Terror by Dan Simmons

Arctic and Antarctic exploration isn’t exactly a walk in the park even today, with all our modern equipment, from motor oil designed to continue lubrication in below-zero (Fahrenheit) temperatures to nutritionally complete, long-lasting foodstuffs. However, at least those modern explorers and scientists know that, should they be lost in the frozen wastelands of the Polar Regions, their remains will be located and returned to surviving (and mourning!) family members. This was not always so in the Golden Age of Exploration…and that’s at the heart of Dan Simmons’ The Terror.

In 1845, Sir John Franklin departed England in search of the Northwest Passage, a theory propounded by geographers and scientists of the day to the effect that there was a navigable passage up and over the top of what is now Canada1, and a geographic phenomenon most earnestly sought by the economic forces of the day for a variety of reasons2. No one from this expedition was ever seen again in their homeland. Their last confirmed position was near Beechy Island, though they almost certainly made it to King William’s (Is)Land.

In theory, Franklin and his backers did everything right. The commander of the expedition and the two men captaining the ships had considerable years of experience in polar exploration between them, not to mention maritime skills gained through a lifetime. The ships used, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, had been taken down to the Antarctic by James Ross a few years previously, and had in the interim been reinforced with iron sheathing and cross-grained wood planking to resist crushing in the pack ice, outfitted with steam engines and rudders that could be retracted into iron-sheathed protective wells to avoid being themselves being crushed in the shifting ice. The expedition brought three years’ worth of canned, dried and salted provisions for what was intended to be no more than a two year long expedition, not to mention each ship had a library of over 1,000 volumes with which it was presumed the crew could amuse themselves during the inevitable periods of being trapped in the ice.

Only of course it didn’t work out, and we’ll never be quite sure why. There are a few plausible real-world issues that contributed to the loss of both ships and all the men. All the problems that plagued previous expeditions worried at the heels of this one: inadequately equipped for a hostile climate, inadequate clothing, inadequate nutrition, inadequate transport, and so on. In this particular expedition’s case, however, their food and water supplies were almost certainly (and quite literally) stacked against them; not only were the supplies of drinking water piped through lead conduits, the canned food had been prepared in haste by a supplier himself inadequately prepared to provide such a large order, and the modern guess is that as a result, the cans were not only poorly sealed (with lead welding, yet), they were also contaminated with silent botulism.

Dan Simmons has put forth a theory of his own: a supernatural creature, inexplicable and unstoppable, that is prowling around the ships in the dark. All the crews of the two ships know is that it is vengeful and is somehow related to the mutely tongueless Inuit woman they found on the ice, with a similarly voiceless older Inuit man. As that second winter, the first off King William Sound, progresses, the creature encroaches further, the ice presses closer and the darkness is increasingly oppressive….and I’ll stop there. Gotta leave some suspense for anyone who hasn’t read this book but intends to.

The short version of my take on the novel is that Simmons could have left out the supernatural/religious element entirely, and it wouldn’t have adversely or even appreciably affected the novel3. Aren’t prowling polar bears enough? I don’t mind supernatural elements inserted into what would be otherwise a prosaically mundane work, if it’s done well and is made a critical component of the new work; I loved Simmons’ Drood. Even the suggestion that some of the crew members might have joined up with the local Inuit is not entirely implausible. It wouldn’t take much of a leap for the cleverer and more open-minded crew members to realize “Hey, if we make nice with this group of people that is not only surviving but thriving where we are dying, maybe we too will survive?”

That said, I’d still heartily recommend the novel to anyone interested in reading a well-written description of what it might have been like on that doomed expedition. Just skip the bits about the phantom whatever-it-is. Having read non-fiction about the Arctic (and Antarctic) exploration over the years, not least Fergus Fleming’s Barrow’s Boys and Ninety Degrees North, Simmons did get the historical part right, so far as I can tell. Even today, we have no real idea what precisely happened to Franklin’s expedition, though I believe modern scientists have found some traces of the Erebus and the Terror, but now as then, the basic assumption is “missing, presumed dead”.

1In fairness, there is a sea route twiddling through the islands scattered north of continental Canada. In the main, however, it is not navigable by anything larger than an umiak for more than about thirty seconds during a heat wave in August.
2While there was a certain element of the “Because it’s there.” drive that motivated all those European expeditions up Everest, seeking a trade route more convenient that slogging all the way down around Tierra del Fuego served as a more pragmatic reason. Of course, the Panama and Suez canals have obviated much of that…
3It’s not Simmons’ fault that I can’t help wondering why the British Navy kept giving their ships names like Erebus, Hecla, Fury and Terror. You’re going to the polar regions for Pete’s sake. Wouldn’t names like Tranquility or Tahiti been more cheering?

Okla Hannali by R.A. Lafferty

There are not a few books, fiction and non-fiction alike, written about the Trail of Tears, from the European perspective and that of the Indians; while this may not be a groundbreaking work from either perspective, it’s a fun read, if I may use that term for a book about such a serious subject. Hopefully, I can describe it in a way that makes it sound worth reading, though that depends in no small degree on whether you like Lafferty’s writing style…he does have rather a distinctive one.

Hannali Innominee, a Choctaw, had the ill fortune (from certain perspectives) to be born shortly before things went west for the Indians, both figuratively and literally–it may be something of a surprise to anyone who wasn’t aware of Indian history in the U.S. to realize just how far east many of the tribes’ original territories were. Even when young, he was an important (fictional) figure in the Choctaw tribe, through his own talents and through his acquaintances. He might, however, have been not so acceptable to the more straitlaced among the whites or the Indians, as he ended up with three ‘wives’, each thinking she was the only one and the others mere servants.

The bulk of the book is Hannali dealing with his family and the world changing around him, trying to settle his Choctaws in their new and decidedly forbidding land, and the like. Over the years he becomes an unofficial leader among the people.

Like many, it tries to answer “How could the Indians let this happen to them?”:

Were the Indians somehow effete to let this happen to them? Were they less men than the white men? No. Man for man they were more man than the whites. But they were unarmed except for bow and lance, and the white man had rifles and courts and sheriffs and armies. Though the United States in the person of its President Andrew Jackson had announced itself powerless to oppose the states in their assaults on the Indians, yet its army was quickly available to put down any countermoves by the Indians against the states.

Part tall tale, part historical novel, Okla Hannali‘s an interesting twist on the Western genre, though I’m sure Lafferty’s not the first to write a Western from the Native American perspective. For those who’ve read Lafferty’s other works, this is something of a departure from the fantasy for which he’s best known, though the writing style will be familiar. Consider it a tall tale based on fact, if you will. Certainly he’s touched on Native American culture before, though all standard disclaimers apply: he is not himself a genetic member of the groups in question, being more or less of European descent himself.

“How was it go to be a child then?” Hannali’s son Travis asked him years later.
     “Everything was larger then,” Hannali would tell his son,”the forest buffalo were bigger than the plains buffalo we have now, the bears were bigger than any you can find in the Territory today you call that a bearskin on that wall it is only a dogskin I tell you yet its from the biggest bear ever killed in the Territory the wolves were bigger the foxes the squirrels were as big as our coyotes now the gophers were as badgers the doves and pigeons then were bigger than the turkeys now.”
     “Maybeso you exaggerate,” his son Travis would say.
     “Of course I do with a big red heart I exaggerate the new age has forgotten how I remember that the corn stood taller and the ears fuller nine of them would make a bushel and now it takes one hundred and twenty that doesn’t consider that the bushels were bigger then the men were taller and of grander voice the women of a beauty to be found nowhere today except in my own family the girls sang so pretty with voices they walked so fine when they carried corn they could soft-talk you like little foxes those girls.”

(and yes, the lack of punctuation is deliberate; Lafferty goes into some detail about how the Choctaw speak without apparent punctuation, and write with a punctuation that follows no known pattern of the Europeans.)

Eskimo Parish by Paul O’Connor

Priests in the lower 48 may have to deal with bad roads, bad weather and poor attendance at services, but count your blessings: at least you don’t have to deal with a team of malemutes which has taken a dislike to one another. Your car doesn’t pick fights with itself while you’re waiting for traffic to ebb. Parishioners in northern Alaska, even today, must perforce miss Sunday service if the leads freeze over before you get the boats in the water but while the land’s still too soft to support snowmobiling.

This is one of those odd little books that, so far as I know, garnered minimal attention when it was first published and has sunk like a stone in the intervening decades: it’s a partial autobiography of a Jesuit priest who felt the calling to serve the indigenous peoples of northern Alaska at a time when this was something of a Terra Incognita, even to the indigenous peoples of southern Alaska. It’s a diverting read today, as much for the opportunity to read that specific Jesuit missionary viewpoint as it is to read a description of life in northern Alaska in the 1930s and 40s.

In 1930, Paul O’Connor felt the calling to serve as parish priest for the Catholic indigenous peoples in the northern portions of the Alaska territory. For his first few years, he served as an itinerant priest, travelling by dog-sled in winter and boat or airplane in summer when the tundra was too soft to travel by sled. In many ways, this would be merely the memoir of a priest serving any far-flung rural parish–he visits the sick, anoints the dying, performs baptisms and marriages as needed–if it weren’t for the fact that he is traveling between parishioners by dogsled. Well, and serving what is in many ways an alien culture to his readers, and to himself. He remained for sixteen years, and upon his return home wrote a memoir.

Like Eva Alvey Richardson’s book about her teaching experience in Alaska, Arctic Mood, it’s a book set in a place about which few Americans1, whether from the territory in question much less the lower 48, knew little at the time of the book’s publication. It’s a reasonably sympathetic tale, though readers might do well to remember who the narrator is, and the time in which the book was written: there’s no little amount of missionary zeal explicit in O’Connor’s narrative, not to mention condescension towards the “ignorant savages”. (I can’t help but wonder what the indigenous peoples thought of these men and women who came with a strange religion or educational agenda, though they seem to have been reasonably amiable about it.) Just for the record, the Bruce Publishing Company was not exclusively (or explicitly) a religious publishing company–rather it was a small imprint which concentrated on business, education and religion. In fairness to O’Connor, his agenda is, not surprisingly, concentrated on bringing the Word of God to a people who’ve had little opportunity to hear it otherwise; he does seem to appreciate the local culture.

The white man and his inventions for decimating time are to [the Eskimo] a source of philosophic wonder. When you tell him with pride that you can cover in an hour by airplane a distance that would take him a week to cover with his dogs, he will only answer with a noncommittal grunt “Eeee?” (Yes?)–if you do not speak Innuit. If you know his language he wil ask laconically, “Chin?” (Why, what’s the rush?). To him the impatient hustle is the white man is a puzzle. You inform him, quite readily, that it is to save time and he will ask you why you want to save time.

1a territory at the time of the book’s publishing, Alaska didn’t become a state until 1959

Arctic Mood by Eva Alvey Richardson

The short version: this is the description of two years in the life of a teacher working in Wainwright, Alaska, from 1924 to 1926.

The author had dreamed for years of the Arctic, and at last, in 1924, she applied to and was accepted by the Alaska Division of the Native School and Medical Service (Department of the Interior); in short order, they gave her a post in “The Eskimo [sic] Village of Wainwright”. A territory for only twelve years at the time and yet thirty-five years from becoming a state, though owned by the United States for some years previously, the northern regions of Alaska were Ultima Thule, both literally and physically. With some help from the department secretary (all congratulations to department secretaries!), Richardson planned out all the supplies she would need to bring, and bravely set out to a part of the country that has maybe two months of ice-free access to the coastal waters and less than that of above-freezing weather.

As one might guess from the full title of the division which hired her, Richardson’s job combined teaching the children and providing medical treatment for any in the community who required it; this last was largely what might be described as first-aid in a modern setting, given the lack of drugs or medical facilities within less than several days travel.

The book is based largely on a combination of her own memories and letters and diaries written at the time. She remembers it fondly twenty-five years later–the book was published in 1949–though one always has to wonder how much of books such as this are rosy tinted memories of youth. Today, I’d call it more a period piece, describing a long-gone world, than a description of teaching technique, much less how the indigenous cultures should be treated or are managing themselves. While training teachers to work in the more remote areas of Alaska is a concern even today–the combination of the distances separating the communities from more populated areas and the extremes in seasons deters many who might otherwise come up from the lower forty-eight–the demagogic techniques have changed, to say the least, in the intervening eighty-five years, not to mention attitudes on how Caucasian interlopers ought to act with the locals. The book’s an interesting window into the past, however.

It’s an interesting, though now more than slightly dated, description of life in the northernmost part of Alaska; they lived within a few days travel by dogsled of Point Barrow, the northernmost point of the state of Alaska. Not brilliant writing at the time of its publication, nevertheless I can see this being an interesting introduction to the culture of the Inuit for readers in the lower forty-eight at the time, and an at least diverting description of the historical period for readers today. As with many other books of this type at this period, it could be argued that the Caucasian writer is working from a conscious or subliminal “white man’s burden” perspective. Nonetheless, Richardson does seem to respect the local people; while she finds their dwellings somewhat backwards compared to her own, I get the feeling that she at least acknowledges that while she would not like them, this is part of the Inuit heritage.

And I have to confess that I admire her for taking on the doyen of the Arctic, Knud Rasmussen–he and friend Peter Freuchen would have been contemporaries of hers–by saying that while the Inuit1 heritage and culture are admirable, it may not be sufficient to ensure their continuing ability to hunt in the traditional ways, given that (gee golly whillikers!) the non-Alaskan whalers have laid waste to the sea creatures the Inuit traditionally hunted! Better, she agrees, to figure out how to preserve their traditions while adapting their lifestyles to modern exigencies–in the case of this book, reindeer herding.

Kirkus Reviews

1I think that the group/culture she was dealing with were indeed Inuit; there are however several other cultures in what is now the political ‘Alaska’.

Laura Ingalls Wilder

Once upon a time, eighty years ago, there was an old woman who should have been a grandmother several times over, but wasn’t. Having no grandchildren of her own to whom she might tell the stories of her childhood sixty years prior to that, she wrote them down and had them published for children around the country and, soon enough, the world.

For those who haven’t read the series (and yes, there are a few who haven’t!): the books about Laura’s own life are, in order of publication, Little House in the Big Woods, Little House on the Prairie, On the Banks of Plum Creek, On the Shores of Silver Lake, The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie and Those Happy Golden Years, with an additional book, Farmer Boy, describing her husband Almanzo’s childhood in Malone, New York. The books begin with Laura, approximately five, living with her family near Pepin, Wisconsin. They move to what was then called Indian Territory briefly, but returned home when the government decided against opening the land to white settlers. In the books’ sequence, the family next moved to Minnesota, in On the Banks of Plum Creek, where they stayed between Laura’s seventh year and her twelfth, then moved on to what would become the town of De Smet in South Dakota. As On the Shores of Silver Lake begins, they did not have a permanent home; they spent that winter in the surveyors’ cabin; house sitters if you will, and Pa filed on his homestead the following spring, as the town burgeoned with the spring thaw. Life was spartan for the first few years, as the farm had not yet begun to produce enough to support the family, and they had only one cow; Pa got work where he could as a carpenter, though this meant leaving his family behind for long stretches of time.

The Long Winter, not surprisingly, is about the harsh winter of 1880-1881; Laura embroidered a bit here, but this was an unusually hard winter, exacerbated by the family’s as yet inadequate housing. Little Town on the Prairie and Those Happy Golden Years cover Laura’s adolescence and the development of De Smet in approximately equal parts; she matures from the carefree child she was in On the Shores of Silver Lake, riding wild on her cousin’s pony, to a young woman concerned with contributing to the family finances in order to keep Mary at the College for the Blind in Vinton, Iowa. Employment for women was decidedly limited: Laura had the choice of being a seamstress or teaching school. The latter won by a nose, as Laura loathed the hand sewing of the day–sewing machines were available in more developed parts of the country, but were too heavy to be commonplace in a place and time when everything had to be brought in by train then wagon from the industrial centers hundreds of miles to the east. Those Happy Golden Years ends on a hopeful note with Laura’s marriage to Almanzo, as she sets up a household of her own on Almanzo’s tree claim.

While the books were fictionalized to an extent, the facts are in essence true as presented. Laura Ingalls was born in 1867 outside of Pepin, Wisconsin. The family moved to “Indian Territory”, near what is now Independence, Kansas when Laura was a toddler–too young to remember the move–but returned to Pepin when the government ejected them as the land was not yet open for homesteading. Pa led the family on a series of moves, largely following the emigrant migrations of the late nineteenth century, finally settling in the then-new town of De Smet, where Laura spent her adolescence. In the books, Pa is a farmer for the most part, although in the later books after they moved away from Pepin, he got occasional work as a carpenter for the cash necessary to buy what the family could not raise, and what they needed while the De Smet homestead developed into a proper farm.

Laura and her daughter Rose collaborated on the books; Laura wrote them and Rose edited them for publication. (It’s not clear how much influence Rose had on the final product.) The series is ‘fictionalized autobiography’: based on fact, but a number of details, some large and some minor, were omitted, especially in the earlier books. I went into a bit more detail in a blog post I made last September, but basically Laura altered or omitted facts and compressed or rearranged what remained for smoother reading. Just as an example, based strictly on Laura’s age, Little House in the Big Woods would have been set during the family’s second stay in Pepin, but she reversed the dates of that second stay with the family’s time in Indian Territory in her third book, Little House on the Prairie, when she would have been old enough to remember events. Perhaps most notably, Laura left out the three years between the events of On the Banks of Plum Creek and By the Shores of Silver Lake; this was when her brother, Charles Frederick, was born and died, and when Mary contracted the illness that rendered her blind. It’s also when the family moved several times between Walnut Creek and Burr Oak, both in Minnesota, while Pa worked at a variety of short jobs, from hotel keeper to butcher.

In essence, the books were true. I suspect, though I have no real proof, that many of the changes were simply to bolster her general theme of “self-sufficient pioneers colonizing the New West”; I’d like to think that Laura was not concealing facts to deceive her readers but rather to make better reading. Pa did what was necessary to feed and house his family, but was not always a farmer and hunter as he was portrayed in the books. He worked as a hotelier, a butcher, a Justice of the Peace, a shopkeeper and several other things. Indeed, he and Caroline Ingalls gave up their homestead outside De Smet shortly after Laura married, and the couple moved into town permanently. Laura was trying to write uplifting books about pioneer life, a time which was all but gone when she began to write the books

Museum at Rocky Ridge
Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society, De Smet
Laura Ingalls Wilder, Frontier Girl

Laura: The Life of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Donald Zochert

I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that Laura: The Life of Laura Ingalls Wilder will be of interest primarily to those of us who’ve cut our broadcast television teeth on the “Little House” series starring Michael Landon and Melissa Gilbert, and perhaps read only the “Little House” series of books which Laura wrote some fifty years after the time which she describes.

For those paying attention neither to my own book blog or to literary works in general from the past eighty years: Laura Ingalls Wilder, in the 1930s and 1940s, wrote a series of autobiographical works of fiction describing her own childhood in what was then the American West. The fictional series begins when Laura is a child of approximately five or six, living in the Big Woods near Pepin, Minnesota, and as the books progress, the family ebbs and flows farther west until they settle in De Smet, South Dakota, when Laura is approximately thirteen. The books as published do not match exactly the Ingalls’ family experience, although they provide an interesting fictional perspective on life in the United States between (approximately) 1870 and 1885; they end with Laura’s marriage to Almanzo leaving readers to wonder “What happened next?”

Zochert’s work will probably serve best as an adjunct for fans of Wilder’s original series to those books; he follows fairly closely Laura’s early life, which was covered in her books; he continues to the end of her life, but the remaining seventy years of her life comprise only about one quarter of Zochert’s book, whereas Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder follows more the process by which Laura came to write the books about her childhood. Zochert spins a tale only slightly less romantic and more based on factual research about Laura’s life than Laura herself wrote about her childhood; while I appreciate the research he did tease out from the thin threads of the census and the legal records, Zochert’s biography is only a little less flossy than Jean Nathan’s of Dare Wright. If one bases one’s assesment purely on the book’s cover, this would be a romance novel complete with bodice-torn heroine panting for her hero. I suspect that Laura would have been scandalized to see this book’s cover, though she did have a durable relationship with her husband.

Thirty-five years on, I suspect that writing styles and research techniques have changed sufficiently that this would not serve as a neutrally written, authorially distanced biography. There are more recent biographies of Laura, and ones which cover her adult married life at that, for those of us who want to know “What happened after the books ended?” While I suspect that Laura is a more enjoyable read than Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder, allowing for literary changes in the intervening decades, I suspect Zochert’s interpolating between the lines of what is known renders it somewhat less factual. There’s only so much one can extrapolate from census records and legal documents, alas, and, as I mentioned with Dare Wright’s biography, the vast majority of us leave little in the way of documentation and information behind for potential biographers, as the vast majority of us are of precious little interest to anyone but our direct descendants.

Deadly Sweet by Watson Sterling

Eddie Priest was a lawyer. Now he’s a hard drinking boat salesman and restorer, the latter chiefly of his own boat purchased sight unseen, with all the structural issues that suggests–hence its name.

Corey Darrow, auburn tressed green-eyed beauty, lightly leaps onto the Sight Unseen one day; she has been referred to him for help by Raymer Harmey, an acquaintance of Eddie’s who stuck with law enforcement. Corey’s worried about a botanist who went missing after he inquired at her office with the Water Management Department, a file that went missing from her computer shortly afterwards, sexual harassment following close on the heels of her expressing her concerns…not to mention the fact that she herself is being followed/stalked by a “darkly tanned” man in sunglasses who drives an outdated Caddy. Eddie demurs, insofar as a gun-toting tough guy of his type can do such a delicate gesture, despite the afternoon he spent skinnydipping (and other adult activities) on a picnic with Corey.

He’s sucked into the investigation willy-nilly when Corey Darrow is found drowned with a .357 Magnum locked in her fist, after her baby-blue Ford truck ran off the road into a swampy ditch. Or rather, when Corey’s twin sister, Sawney, comes sauntering into Eddie’s favorite gin mill dive to beg him to avenge her sister’s death.

Harry W. Feather, part-Indian, is working for Lofton Coltis, proudly pure Anglo and the local land baron–it is on Coltis’s land that a medical botanist (later found dead) discovered a plant (presumably still alive at the end of the book) thought only to grow in the Amazonian rain forest along with all the other phenomenally useful botanic specimens found there. Harry starts getting nervous when the police come sniffing around after he messes with Corey just a little too hard the night she died, and rushes off to the one lone body shop in town capable of repainting his Caddy where he bumped into Corey’s truck. The body shop owner, who is also the town’s only tow truck driver, puts two and two together when he realizes that the paint smudge on Harry’s car matches the paint on Corey’s car, and vice versa.

…and yes, if you’ve started guessing about the connection between Darrow and Feather and Coltis, with a few side bets on who lives and who dies at whose hand, you’re pretty much right.

Gators and swamps and long-legged beauties; big cars, handguns and gas guzzlers. Thugs and politicians1. Native Americans. Florida panthers. Steamy velvety dark nights, manly swaggering and fast car chases. This is dudelit if I ever saw it2; it’s an action-packed thriller with all the atmospheric swampiness one might expect from a book set in Fla’da. Reading it, I felt that I should have been sitting in a tent of mosquito netting imbued with full-strength DEET.

What to read next? Oddly, I first thought of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series, though that’s largely due to the Florida backdrop, the protagonist’s ownership of a boat, and…well, the general dudelit air of the series, not to mention the protagonist who lives on a boat and who has an eye for the ladies.

1stop laughing. There is a difference. No, really.
2to the best of my knowledge, that’s not a real literary term, but I think it should be. Surely there’s a category of Manly Testosterone-Laden books to serve as a counterpoint to all the chicklit in which everyone has feelings but never does anything