Friday, January 27, 2017

A Discovery of Strangers

Explorers have been depicted in popular fiction almost since the dawn of exploration itself, and in nearly all of these tales, the explorer was the hero, boldly sailing forth into uncharted waters, or striding forth into unmapped lands. Anyone who grew up in this age of heroic literature would have known Phineas Fogg, Professor Challenger, and Fraser of Africa as well as they knew their real-life counterparts like Henry Morton Stanley,  Sir Richard Francis Burton, or Fridtjof Nansen.

But there has always been a sense that, particularly from the view of the people who were already living in places that European explorers sought to penetrate, that some of these men were less than heroic, or that -- even if their intentions were benign and scientific -- that they brought with them presuppositions about the inferiority of the peoples and cultures they encountered. And then, of course, there were those who came after: the whalers, loggers, and (before too long) missionaries, seeking to impose their religion. Their self-presumed superiority often led to misunderstandings, mistrust, and abuse, all of which tended to increase as the cultural balance shifted and more and more strangers arrived.

John Franklin's second Arctic expedition -- his first made mainly by land -- was in some ways a paradigm for all these problems. He had been charged by the Royal Navy with locating and mapping the shores of the "Polar Sea," a presumed body of water which, as of that time, very little was known. He was accompanied by only four naval personnel: Dr. John Richardson, who was to be the expedition's surgeon-naturalist; George Back, a junior officer known for his endurance and resourcefulness, Robert Hood, a midshipman (a sort of cadet in the Royal Navy system), and John Hepburn, the sole ordinary sailor of an officer-rich party. To actually transport them and their supplies, a group of hired voyageurs -- French-speaking trappers who knew their way around a canoe -- were employed, but were regarded as no better than servants. It was, even before the expedition
Charlie eats his boot (The Gold Rush, 1925)
reached its destination, a recipe for disaster. Several other factors contributed: an ongoing rivalry between fur trading companies meant that supplies that had been expected were late or missing; the party was delayed in reaching its initial camp ("Fort Enterprise"), and Franklin ends up making extraordinary demands for meat and furs from the region's indigenous the Tetsot'ine (called by outsiders the Yellowknife). Delays of various kind ensue, leading Franklin to depart too late, a decision which later leads to his trying a seeming "shortcut" over the barren lands, one which will cost the lives of eleven men. Those who survived had to live on lichens and burnt deerskins, having already boiled and consumed all the scraps of leather they could find. And yet, incomprehensibly to many today, Franklin was hailed as a hero, the "man who ate his boots"; he was promoted to Captain, elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, and wrote a best-selling book about his journey.

Wiebe recounts the story via multiple narrators, each with his or her own distinct voice and presence. A student of indigenous history, he fictively re-creates the native perspective on the arrival of these demanding strangers, but he also gives the explorers -- prejudices and all -- license to tell their tales as they see fit. Even hapless Hepburn, who emerges as a man of strong personal character despite his humble upbringing and the low expectations of some around him, gets to add his testimony. The result is a multi-faceted narrative -- shifting, recounting, re-telling -- that resists being boiled down to a single story. At the same time, though, it leaves little doubt that the hubris and sense of cultural superiority of the English were, deep down, the main cause of the catastrophe.


  1. One of the benefits of the novel’s multiple voices is the opportunity this allows for the different environmental perspectives, which are so crucial to shaping the Arctic experience. Wiebe’s choice to start the story with story of the hunt immediately placed the human interactions within a dialogue about complex, sometimes ambiguous interrelationships which occur in the natural world, which is not just a background, but rather a central participant in the novel.

    Franklin’s crew seems to overvalue their technological advances over the natives, but in the Arctic environment, advances do not necessarily mean advantages. Even Franklin’s guns are a hunting disadvantage, the natives are much better equipped to hunt native animals with their own techniques and technology. The natives also see themselves as part of fragile ecological systems, which explains their respect for the wolves and their hesitation to over-hunt for skins. Eventually, I found it interesting how the natives, especially the native men, become part of/start believing in the economic systems brought by Franklin’s men. The women, especially Greenstocking, are dehumanized in ways that far exceed their treatment in England at the time. The violence and exploitative nature of her situation is closely related to that of the animals being over-hunted, and which she has the task to prepare.

  2. I think the most beautiful thing about this novel is that it starts with the animals and the land and it ends with that. We talked about this in class, but now that I had the chance to read it for myself I find it really beautiful and symbolic. The land and the animals will go on. Nature doesn't need us, we need nature sort of thing. It always comes full circle, and I think it's great that Wiehe doesn't make this book solely about the explorers at the end.

  3. The aspect of the novel that I enjoyed the most were the changing perspectives from the British explorers to the Tetsot'ine people to the animals. It opens up the reader to how each of these groups responded to the Arctic culture and even how they all interacted with one another. The realistic descriptions humanize the groups of people and personifies the characteristics of the animals in a way in which we wouldn't expect. In addition to the range of perspectives, there is also a description of the landscape that gives a better picture of how we might view the Arctic landscape. While it might be tough to visualize in the first place, these descriptions open up the minds of readers who might not know as much about the Arctic in the first place.

  4. After reading "A Discovery of Strangers", the question that still lingered in my mind from class discussion was, can Franklin be categorized as a hero? Many may argue that he is not a hero because the voyage itself was a complete disaster that resulted in many deaths. I’m not sure how much credit I would give him but I won’t dismiss the idea of him as a hero completely. I believe that anyone who partook in the voyage from the beginning knew to a certain extent how dangerous it was going to be and were aware that anything was possible. Expecting everything to turn out effortlessly was just an irrational way of thinking. I believe that many people were under the impression that he had done his homework and knew more about the Arctic than they did. I think of Franklin as a hero in terms of his bravery because after having failed before on other expeditions he kept going in hopes that he would accomplish his goal. I enjoyed how the story ended because I was expecting it to end a lot worse than it did.

  5. Samantha Houle Keskarrahs stories directly related to what is going on, what will happen, or what has happened. They way the POV changes, and how the narrator follows/reveals characters was particularly interesting in how it effected the way I viewed characters over the course of the book, especially Hood. When I was given insight through the parts,chapters,journal entries that displayed his character through others (Back, Richardson, Greenstockings, ect) I found his character sympathetic, likable, and interesting. When Hoods thoughts were revealed/followed, I found his character immensely annoying, whiney, and full of himself. What I like most about the book is the ending. Back/Twospeaker tells Greenstocking “…the ravens guided us, and the wolves fed us…just like you once told Hood,” leading me to believe that Hood at least understood some of her language (313). This makes me think when Greenstocking says “mine” she says it in English, because now the two men stare at her (not just Twospeaker, with Back looking back and forth). I think thats why all the information leading up to that exchange is given. She understands how the English work, how they will come back and demand more, claim more. So she claims her daughter, demanding they understand her (I think).

  6. I found Wiebe’s a Discovery of Strangers to be a far grittier read than The Last Imaginary Place. There is violence everywhere, from the hunting to the weather and even cannibalism. I found the novel to be quite disturbing in terms of the dangers surrounding Arctic exploration. The presence of death and suffering takes a front seat before the beauty of the surroundings. Wiebe also makes a strong connection between nature and humans, which is extremely important to notice. Nature and the animals are so crucial to the human explorers and their experiences; although the weather and dangerous animals sometimes create issues for the humans, they also make their expeditions possible. Without animals to hunt and eat and natural food and resources, no one would be able to make a journey into the Arctic alone. I find this novel to be a larger correlation between man and nature, which is the most necessary connection in the world; sometimes it is easy for humans to lose sight of the importance and relevance of nature but it is truly mind-blowing how important it really is.