Discovering the Arctic. The Story of John Rae

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Where Franklin met only adversity and death, Rae, open-minded and sufficiently canny to learn rather than scorn the survival techniques of the local Inuit, not only survived but added thousands of kilometers of northern shoreline to European maps. Word of Rae's success spread, and in years to come he would be sent on repeated missions to learn the fate of the Franklin expedition.


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Nonetheless, when Rae finally reported tales of madness and cannibalism among Franklin's crew, stories told to him by the Inuit, Rae was disbelieved, ridiculed and shunned. Rae's reputation never recovered from this calumny, even after his account of the demise of the Franklin expedition was proven true.

The Story of John Rae

It is hard to determine the intended audience for Discovering the Arctic. The press release states that the book "should appeal to all children from the age of nine up," but seventy-five text-heavy pages, ambiguously captioned photographs, crude maps and grayscale illustrations seem unlikely to appeal to anyone. Illustrations need not be in colour, but they should be detailed and relevant, or at least engaging and attractive. Throughout, page layout and graphic design are unimaginative and occasionally confusing.

Printed in double columns, the left-hand column sometimes provides contextual information, sometimes it is an extended caption to an illustration or photograph, and sometimes it must be read in conjunction with the main text, printed in the right-hand column, to be comprehensible.

Worse, sometimes the main narrative migrates into the left-hand column, with the right-hand column providing supporting detail. Readers are likely to become confused and frustrated. The book has neither index nor table of contents.

Book List – John Rae Society

This means that references to recurring minor personalities, like Letitia Hargrave above, are difficult to follow, and passages treating specific themes or subjects are hard to locate. Specialized vocabulary generally is explained when it first occurs, but the lack of a glossary means that those readers who forget what the HBC was, or what a kabloona is, or who the voyageurs were, are out of luck.


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Without such basic bibliographic apparatus, students will find the book difficult to use for school reports. Author John Wilson has a good story on his hands, and his passion for Rae's unjust exclusion from the pantheon of great explorers is clear. Nonetheless, this book needs to be shorter or less dense, to have a clearer central narrative, to have better maps, to have an index, table of contents, and glossary, and to have better illustrations.

Unless your patrons need to write reports on John Rae, or unless arctic exploration is the specific collecting focus of your library, there is no reason to add this book to your collection.

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Northern Knowledge: The Canadian Arctic Expedition - History Matters

Volume X Number February 13, Hosted by the University of Manitoba. He made the correct decision. The fact that Rae was the most successful explorer of his age and employed exploration methods decades ahead of his time counted for nothing. Based on extensive research and told in entertaining and readable prose, Fatal Passage restores Rae to his proper place in history.

Rae trekked over 20, kilometres — half of them on snowshoes — surveyed almost 3, square kilometres of territory unexplored by Europeans, and, unlike any other explorer in the half-century following, survived by learning Inuit ways. His admiration for the abilities of the Inuit stands in dramatic contrast to the racism of his time.

Team to retrace Orkney explorer Dr John Rae's Arctic journey

His text is also refreshingly free from the factual errors that mar many of the popular books on Franklin. This is an overdue book that makes an important contribution to Canadian and Arctic exploration history and yet remains compulsively readable for the non-specialist. Subscribe: Digital Edition. Subscribe: Print Edition.


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