Breaking the ice

The ship Alert is detained by ice. Nares Expedition 1875
The ship Alert is detained by ice. Nares Expedition 1875

By David Hennessy

The week after the announcement of the discovery of one of the two British explorer ships led by John Franklin that vanished in the Arctic more than 160 years ago, Irish author Cormac James releases his book The Surfacing which deals with the extended search for Franklin.

Cormac’s tale is more concerned with the human motives of those who volunteered to go in search of the lost expedition. Stuck in ice for many months of the year, it was a hopeless situation in extreme conditions.

Cormac tells The Irish World: “There’s always been a lot of Irish involvement (in the history of the arctic). Probably the most famous of the polar explorers is Ernest Shackleton from Co. Kildare. I come from Cork so Tom Crean would be big on the radar so I always had an interest: Why would a man go there? What’s he looking for? And what’s he trying to get away from? What were the conditions like?

“I liked the idea he’s trying to get away from the complicated nature of everyday life, human relations, family life. It interested me that maybe the back story was not so much that he was going out there to perform some heroic exploits but that he was actually going away from something. What I do is I set him in the space where it’s all male, the choices are hard but very, very simple and I drop a woman in there in a situation where he can’t walk away from it. He’s forced to face up to it so it’s that set up rather than the actual history that interested me.”

The men's quarters on a ship like the one Cormac writes about
The men’s quarters on a ship like the one Cormac writes about

Cormac’s protagonist is Morgan, second in command of The Impetus. It is a challenging and dangerous endeavour in a very male world until he realises there is a pregnant stowaway on board and that he is the father. Too late to turn back and with the ice closing in, it appears that there is no room for Morgan to walk away from his responsibilities and that his child will have to be born into the vast and icy wilderness of the Arctic.

Cormac continues: “I suppose he starts off as someone who is very reserved. He presents a certain façade to the world, he has a certain role on the ship and he takes refuge in that role and that suits him. It means he never has to go beyond a certain level of honesty or communication or intimacy and maybe that is one of the reasons he has gone up there, because he knows everything is going to be very clearly defined: The choices, the roles and how people relate to each other.

“Is she going to break the façade, the glass wall that he’s living behind? Is she going to be able to break through that? Or the birth of the child, is that going to affect him? And that’s part of the tension. Is he going to come out of this the same as he was before or is there going to be a fundamental change in him?”

Author Cormac James
Author Cormac James

Cormac was interested in how these men went up into the Arctic with so little equipment, so little knowledge of where Franklin may have gone and with such little knowledge of the terrain or conditions: “Essentially it was a blank space, they didn’t have any idea of the space in which they were looking. They were just feeling in the dark and they would go as far as they could and then they were stuck.”

Adding to the tension in The Surfacing is the lack of respect Morgan has for his superior, Myer: “You could imagine now the leader of a mountaineering expedition or an around the world boat race having certain psychological training: Man management, all that sort of stuff. At the time: Not at all.

“Some of the captains seem to have been the most ill equipped and least suitable possible. Some of them were great, some of them weren’t, some of them went up there clearly for a career move and there were some leaders. There was a commander Edward Belcher who was in charge of the biggest expedition when there were ten ships under him up there. He seems to have been incredibly bad at making decisions, he hated being up there, none of the captains under him respected him and he was before a court martial when he got back, he wasn’t convicted.

“There are a lot of other expedition stories that I’ve read where the captain seems to be just the wrong man in the wrong place and the problem there again is you can’t just get off at the next port, you can’t resign to your commissioner. You’re stuck with him so of course the tensions always come to the surface.

For the full interview, see the September 20 Irish World. 

The Surfacing by Cormac James is out on September 18 on Sandstone Press. 

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