Sunday, June 10, 2012

On the Proper Use of Stars, by Dominique Fortier

originally published as Du bon usage des etoiles, 2008
translated by Sheila Fischman
269 pp
hardcover - Canada
(and Ancient Forest Friendly!)

 "Perlerorneq. That is the word the Esquimaux use for the feeling that eats away at the hearts of men during the winter that stretches out endlessly, when the sun seldom appears. Perlerorneq. Hoarse as the lament of an animal that senses the approach of death."

Captain John Franklin's final mission of 1845 sets the frame for this novel, as he sets sail to navigate the two ships  Erebus and Terror through  unexplored stretches of the Northwest Passage.  However, On the Proper Use of Stars  is not just another account of that expedition; instead, it is a very cleverly-constructed novel that moves back and forth between the Arctic and Victorian London, focusing on the lives of the men stuck in the ice while life goes on with Franklin's wife Jane and her niece Sophia back at home.  The story is punctuated throughout with various documents from both fronts: pieces of plays, menus, science books , fictional diary excerpts and other fragments of historical texts that help to simultaneously contrast and bring together the two alternating strands depicting these respective worlds. 

Despite some ominously-depicted foreshadowings of doom at the beginning of the novel, at first  morale seems to be very high about the Erebus and the Terror.  Francis Crozier, captain of the Terror, notes that aboard the Erebus, "laughter can be heard from morning to night."  Food is plentiful, good progress is being made, and even when the long winter night sets in, the men put on plays, have intellectual discussions  and set up classes.  Franklin, in the meantime, writes in his journal, which he will leave to his wife for adding the "finishing touches," to make his account of the expedition "worthy of the events."  But there are some issues: Franklin and Crozier do not see eye to eye --  Franklin, who enjoys contemporary recognition as a hero, treats Crozier with scorn when he makes suggestions that embody "plain common sense," such as leaving behind the message cylinders as per orders of the Admiralty.  Crozier does what he's told but questions Franklin's leadership.   Meanwhile, back in London, Lady Jane Franklin with her sister, niece and stepdaughter set off for their own explorations -- first in France, then off to Portugal, Madeira, the West Indies and then the United States, carefully documenting every bit of information about the world she's exploring; while at home, she not only has a busy social life, but spends a great deal of time examining maps of the Arctic, charting various explorers' routes with different colors.  

The rest of the novel continues in the same manner, contrasting the two separate worlds of London and the Arctic, reflecting  life in both settings and how each group attempts to stave off their respective anxieties as it becomes apparent that there is little hope of a return to England.  Crozier dreams of becoming a hero so that on his return he can court and marry Sophia, for whom he had once drawn her initial in a field of Tasmanian stars;  Sophia, on the other hand, spends her days attending house parties or other events to escape her boredom, and wonders if she should even marry at all, hardly even remembering Crozier.   Lady Jane Franklin, who was ridiculed by other wives while with her husband in Tasmania, now finds that she is quite popular with the same women now that Sir John is leading the expedition. She  refuses most invitations, but makes sure her weekly soire├ęs show off the wonders she's discovered in her own travels.    Her own worries about the failure of the expedition to return fall on deaf ears as Franklin's contemporaries, namely Barrow, Parry, and Ross are certain that "the man who ate his boots" is in no danger, and that "one does not set out to rescue heroes."  But unwilling to give up, and refusing to let them "get rid of her like that," she exhausts herself looking for help. Her despondency turns into "will, animated first by anger, which grows from day to day and is gradually being steeped in a muted hatred."   While Sophia is busy with the day's appointment schedule, Crozier, getting ready to leave the ship with two dinghies in hopes of rescue for what's left of the ships' companies,  is examining the objects that the remaining men have brought out onto the ice -- the "household trinkets" that are "all of England that they will pull behind them, the weight of their country, even if it should lead them directly to their death."

Beyond the two very different worlds, Fortier also includes the Arctic natives, the "Esquimaux," who come across the trapped ships, greeted as a welcome sight by the crew. These "savages" wondered whether the ships had been made their way across the ice or if they'd come from the sky. The Esquimaux were also convinced to come aboard and to take a look inside the ships, and do so expressing a great deal of wonder and surprise.  This action follows the script of a play that was staged by the crew, "Journey to the Moon," which underscores a visit to the moon where the customs, society and differences between cultures dumbfound the traveler.  And while they are referred to as  "savages who live like animals" and are seen as uncivilized among some of the officers, it doesn't take long for Crozier to realize that the Esquimaux likely have the upper hand by taking advantage of the "meager resources offered by this environment."

On the Proper Use of Stars is very different, but very well written. It reveals a unique way of fictionally presenting a well-known moment in history without having to resort to lengthy exposition or  unnecessary dialogue to bring the reader back to that point in time.   The construction and ongoing juxtaposition of the two different worlds that these people inhabit never allows the story to become dull or boring.  The same is true for the characterization as well as the vividly-evoked Arctic settings that start out beautiful and soon lapse into dreadful monotony. 

Not everyone will like this book, especially those who prefer a traditional narrative style, and those who like a lot of action in their historical fiction. But if you are up for something new,  you might want to give this one a try.  The story is familiar yet becomes something entirely different at the same time.

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