Arctic Grail

Berton, Pierre. The Arctic Gail: The Quest for the Northwest Passage and the North Pole, 1818 – 1909. New York: Viking, 1988.

This is a “take two” book. I started it in 2011 and didn’t finish it. Didn’t even come close. I think I borrowed it too late in the month of February and realized I couldn’t read all 600+ pages before the start of March. This time I was smart and ordered it before February 1st so that I could start reading it on the very first day of the month (which was a neat 25 pages per day).

The Arctic Grail: the Quest for the North West Passage and the North Pole, 1818 – 1909 is exactly that – an extensive and wide angled look at the explorers who took on the quest to find the North West Passage between 1818 and 1909. A variety of influential characters are detailed, starting with Sir John Ross and William Edward Parry and ending with Frederick Cook and Robert Edwin Peary. Parry, probably the most unique of the group, was young (only 29), big into keeping his crew entertained with music, theater and even a newspaper. He was also deeply religious. “His greatest accomplishment was his understanding of his crew and his determination to keep them healthy in mind as well as body” (p 34). Other explorers were drawn to the Arctic despite wanting family lives. Several married just before embarking on trips that would take them away from their new brides for several years. The obsession to find the North West Passage was strong and unyielding. This obsession almost takes on a quality of mental illness for some of the explorers, risking the health and even lives of their ships and crew. When John Franklin goes missing his wife, Lady Franklin, becomes just as obsessed with finding him.

Favorite and/or intriguing lines, “The British Navy was never comfortable with dogs” (p 43) and “She devoured books (295 in one three-year period) – books on every subject: travel, education, religion, social problems…” (p 122) and the sentence that sums up the obsession, “He was..obsessed with the Arctic, a quality that more and more seemed to be the prime requisite for would-be northern adventurers” (p 345).

Reason read: in honor of the birth (and death) month of Elisha Kent Kane, one of the medical officers in the British Royal Navy who attempted to find lost Navy officer Sir John Franklin. He intrigues me because he was a crowned a hero despite the fact several of his crew revolted.

Author Fact: Towards the end of Berton’s life he admitted he had been a recreational pot smoker for over 40 years. He even went on a Canadian television station to “educate” people on how to roll a joint correctly. I Kid You Not. It’s on YouTube. Funny stuff.

Book trivia: With Arctic Grail cataloged at 672 pages long this book was very heavy to carry around. I left it in the office and made sure I read 30-40 pages every lunch break.

BookLust Twist: From Book Lust in the chapter called “Here Be Dragons: The Great Explorers and Expeditions” (p 110).

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