When news broke last week that Canadian search teams had discovered one of the ships from the ill-fated 1845 Franklin expedition, it was BIG NEWS indeed. How two ships –Terror and Erebus – and 129 men under the leadership of Sir John Franklin virtually disappeared in the Canadian Arctic has long puzzled historians, scientists, and many an armchair adventurer – this writer among them. Despite a century and a half of intense investigation, few clues surfaced to tell the tragic tale: three graves on Beechey Island, remnants of a winter camp on King William Island, an abandoned lifeboat, tin cans, the occasional tool, the odd weapon, a few books, a couple of scrawled notes, a number of human bones. And now, a ship.
I’ve been following the Franklin story for decades. I’d written about it twice, first in Mysteries of Time (1992) just after anthropologist Owen Beattie opened the graves of three sailors from the expedition, and added lead poisoning and cannibalism to the tale. I wrote about the Franklin expedition again in Case Files: 40 Murders & Mysteries Solved by Science (2012). By then, scientists and historians had uncovered other clues and were just beginning to troll Arctic waters for the lost ships. My story incorporated the latest facts and speculation – debates about the source of lead, hints about the ships’ locations from Inuit lore, conjecture about the route the sailors might have taken across the ice as they fled their crippled vessels.
When news surfaced about the Franklin ship, my first reaction was a mixture of amazement and awe. Amazement that searching for a needle-in-a-haystack prize like this ended so successfully. Awe at the astounding combination of technology, expertise and determination that led to this point.
Right on the heels of amazement and awe, though, I had a second rush of reactions. Disappointment led the group. Here was something new, a huge discovery. Anyone reading my accounts of the Franklin expedition would find this information missing. Wouldn’t that date these pieces? Make them less accurate and reliable, and perhaps less worthy of a reading? As writers we face the problem of dating our material all the time. Fiction writers who include references to the latest pop tunes, electronic gizmos, fashion crazes, food fads and the like, run the risk of losing future readers when these latest and greatest trends trade places with new ones. Anyone who watches old TV shows like MacMillan & Wife or Rockford Files and sees someone using a shoebox-sized cellular phone (or perhaps no cell phone at all), knows how quickly dated material detracts from the story.
Non-fiction writers run similar risks. Sometimes facts that seem solid and indisputable become less so with the passage of time, not through any fault of the writer, but simply because new and more current facts supplant old ones. Case in point: Pluto. Once a mighty planet like eight others, it is now considered to be something less – a dwarf planet.
But non-fiction material also becomes dated when current information is omitted – Franklin’s ship, for example. While my accounts are still factually accurate for the time they were written, by not mentioning the discovery, they assume a yellow-with-age quality. Hence, my disappointment at hearing the Franklin news.
Along with disappointment, I also felt helplessness. There was no way to add new information to my books. Even if they were to be reprinted someday by the publisher, tampering with the original files would be a costly, unwieldy affair, hardly warranted by the addition of a line or two of updated information.
Disappointment and helplessness aside, I experienced a flood of questions, too. Which ship was it – Terror or Erebus? What combination of factors brought it down at this spot? What new things will we learn about Franklin, his men and the ill-fated decisions they made?
Isn’t this the allure of the Franklin story? Uncertainty. Speculation. More questions. The best a writer can do is to tell the story with the facts at hand, and leave the door open for new information. In Case Files, I ended with such a line: For now, the Franklin mystery remains very much an open case, a puzzle with many more questions than answers.
It’s entirely possible that we will never learn exactly what transpired, and every written account about the Franklin expedition will be judged incomplete at some point. For writers like me, discoveries like the Franklin ship just mean having yet another opportunity to tell the story again.