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Once more into the Northwest Passage

This one, which turned up in the National Post, finds our hero sailing in the High Arctic with Adventure Canada. You gotta love the podcast, which becomes accessible through the link . . . .

High Arctic: Travelling to the top of the world

So this was the view that greeted explorer Samuel Hearne in 1771, when he became the first European to reach the Arctic coast of North America: a vision of small islands rolling away to the horizon. Hearne had travelled months to get here, trekking northwest across "the Barren Lands" with an ever-changing party of Chipewyan Dene from Prince of Wales Fort at Churchill.

Almost 220 years later, while sailing in September with Adventure Canada, a dozen voyagers stood on the bluffs outside Kugluktuk and revelled in the history of this place. In 1819, five decades after Hearne, a young John Franklin had looked out over this same vista, having led a canoe expedition down the Coppermine River. From here, where the river empties into Coronation Gulf, the naval officer pushed eastward and, overruling his Native guides, went too far: His return journey became a desperate flight for survival during which he lost 11 of his 21 men. Later, in 1845, he would sail into the Arctic with two ships and 128 men - none of whom would ever be seen alive again.

PODCAST: The author discusses the Arctic with the Post's Brad Frenette in the latest NP Traveller Podcast. [Subscribe via iTunes here]

Later still, in 1851, that peerless traveller John Rae reached these bluffs while leading a Hudson's Bay Co. expedition searching for the now-lost Franklin. From here, Rae used snowshoes to cross the ice and explore the southern coast of Victoria Island; then, having retrieved two small boats as the ice melted, he continued the search by water.

Kugluktuk, an Inuit community also known as Coppermine, today boasts a population of 1,300 and an airport with regular flights to Yellowknife and Cambridge Bay, Nunavut. But we visitors, mostly older adventure travellers certain to increase in numbers as the Northwest Passage becomes increasingly viable, had ridden ashore in zodiacs from the Clipper Adventurer, a comfortable expeditionary ship, ice-strengthened, that accommodates about 130 passengers.

After visiting the bluffs, we explored the town, then mixed and mingled at a multi-purpose community centre called The Complex, where locals sold carvings, prints and knitted goods and mounted a cultural presentation with drumming and dancing. For some travellers, the cultural dimension of the voyage was paramount. Resource staff included lawyer-activist Aayu Peter and filmmaker John Houston, who led workshops in the rudiments of Inuktitut while the ship called in at several Inuit communities.

For others, an Arctic voyage is mainly about the outdoors: cruising in zodiacs through spectacular icebergs, or else trekking across the tundra and seeing polar bears, muskox, caribou, seals, Arctic hare, snowy owls - all of which, during our 16-day voyage, we encountered. For history buffs like me, however, who regard Arctic exploration as the great adventure of Canadian history, the touchstone epic that, like the Civil War for Americans, demands a response from every generation, this voyage was all about visiting history-rich sites.

Adventure Canada had originally intended to sail the Clipper Adventurer northwest from Kugluktuk through Prince of Wales Strait, which runs between Victoria and Banks Islands, and then carry on to Greenland. But ice conditions at the mouth of the Strait dictated a change of plans. Those of us who were history-oriented felt almost vindicated because, in 1851, Robert McClure encountered precisely this challenge in the Investigator. After spending three winters trapped in the pack ice, McClure was forced to abandon his ship to destruction.

Mid-voyage we changed course and took the southern route through the Passage - the same one taken (in reverse) by Roald Amundsen in 1903-06, when he became the first to navigate the Northwest Passage. As a result, we made an unanticipated visit to little-known Pasley Bay on the west coast of Boothia Peninsula. Here we discovered a sturdy five-foot cairn, beside which we found a two-decades-old plaque commemorating the maiden voyage in 1988 of a ship called the Henry Larsen.

The cairn itself remained a puzzle until later, when I determined that it had been erected just 67 years ago by Larsen himself. In 1942, while making the first return voyage through the Passage, Larsen spent 10 months trapped in Pasley Bay in the St. Roch. When a crew member died suddenly of a heart attack, Larsen built the cairn to mark his gravesite.

Not far north of Pasley Bay, we veered east through the narrows of Bellot Strait, which is never wider than 1.6 kilometres. In 1851, Jane Lady Franklin dispatched Captain William Kennedy to search for her husband just south of this region, where indeed he had met a sorry end. But Kennedy got trapped in the ice on the east coast of Boothia, and after travelling through this strait by dogsled with Joseph-René Bellot, his second-in-command, Kennedy insisted on continuing west instead of south. Where he and Bellot battled ice and blizzards, we sailed through open waters and saw no icebergs - just four restless polar bears.

Next morning, in cold, blustery weather, we went ashore on Beechey Island, where Franklin spent the winter of 1846 before sailing south to his tragic fate. After visiting the graves of three sailors who died on Beechey, we ranged over the island, careful not to disrupt the site. In 1850, when American explorer Elisha Kent Kane and others discovered the graves, they also found a neat pile of more than 600 tin cans that had been emptied and filled with limestone pebbles, "perhaps to serve as convenient ballast on boating expeditions."

No such pile exists today. But at Northumberland House, two kilometres east of the graves, we counted about 85 of the pebble-filled tins buried in the rocky soil to form the shape of a cross. On the ridge above, the most interesting of several monuments is dedicated to Joseph-René Bellot.

After returning to England with Kennedy, the young Frenchman rejoined the Franklin search in 1853. That August, while anchored off Beechey Island, he volunteered to deliver a message. While he trekked north up Wellington Channel, the ice cracked and Bellot found himself stranded on an ice floe with two men. The three tented overnight, and in the morning, Bellot left the tent ... never to be seen again.

On the Clipper Adventurer, we continued eastward along Baffin Island to Greenland. We traversed Disko Bay, where virtually every sailor who ever entered the Northwest Passage, Franklin included, put in for fresh water. At nearby Ilulissat, in zodiacs, we cruised among the icebergs of the Jakobshvan Isbrae, the fast-moving Greenlandic ice river that has always spawned the largest bergs in the world, including the one that sank the Titanic. This proved a spectacular climax to a 16-day voyage in the wake of John Franklin.

• Ken McGoogan, a recipient of the Pierre Berton Award for History, sailed on this voyage as a resource historian with Adventure Canada. He is the author of four books about the Northwest Passage, the latest of which is Race to the Polar Sea.


High Arctic cruises start in July and run through August and September. Space is limited and people have already started booking: The earlier you reserve cabin space, the better. Voyages vary in length, but 15-day cruises, meals included, start around $6,200. Best bet: check out the websites below.

• Adventure Canada (1-800-363-7566; This Mississauga-based company specializes in High Arctic, Greenland and Northwest Passage cruises.

• Cruise North Expeditons (1-866-263-3220; This Inuit-owned company offers High Arctic, Baffin Island and Northwest Passage adventures.

• The Great Canadian Adventure Company (1-888-285-1676; This Edmonton-based company offers a variety of Arctic voyages and adventures.
Ken McGoogan
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IFOA: Here come the Scots!

Meanwhile, here in the Big Smoke, the International Festival of Authors has a Writing Scotland theme happening. The National Post is running a Q&A with some of the participating authors, our hero among them. . . .

This year, the International Festival of Authors has joined forces with the Edinburgh International Book Festival and the Scottish Government to present Writing Scotland, a celebration that coincides with Scottish Homecoming and the 250th anniversary of Robert Burns' birth. IFOA has even registered their own tartan! Scotland and Canada have a long and rich history: more than four million Canadians have some kind of Scottish heritage, including many of the Canadian authors at this year's festival: Alice Munro, Alistair MacLeod, Linden MacIntyre.

Throughout IFOA XXX, The Afterword will introduce readers to some of the Scottish writers attending this year's festival.

Today: Scottish-Canadian author Ken McGoogan, who is currently working on a new book about Scottish influences in Canada called Bravehearts & Brassy Lasses: How the Scots Invented Canada.

Q: The population of Scotland is a little over 5 million people, yet it supports such a robust literary culture. What gives?

A: This goes back to the sixteenth century and, ironically, to the fanatical John Knox, the father of Presbyterianism. Knox decreed that every Scot should be able to read the Bible and dispute its teachings. This led to widespread literacy (and disputatiousness), which spawned the Scottish Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. The Scots have been reading, writing and arguing ever since. That`s just who they are.

Q: This is the 250th anniversary of Robert Burns' birth - what's your favourite of The Bard's poems?

A: Ae Fond Kiss. Read about the love affair Burns had with his Clarinda. Then check out this love song as performed by Eddi Reader. Make sure you have a hanky handy.

Q: Canada has a rich history of Scottish immigration -- over 4 million Canadians have some degree of Scottish heritage. Do you feel a connection to the country when you read Canadian literature?

A: According to the 2006 census, 4.7 million Canadians claim Scottish heritage – 15 per cent of our population.. That percentage has remained virtually unchanged since Canada`s first census in 1871. Yet the Scottish influence on Canadian literature has been profound. Our passion for historical novels, for example, derives generally from Scotland (we never severed ties) and specifically from Sir Walter Scott. As for Canadian writers of Scottish heritage, in non-fiction we have such seminal figures as Harold Innis, Donald Creighton, George Grant, John Kenneth Galbraith, Marshall McLuhan, and Farley Mowat. In fiction, the list starts with L.M. Montgomery, Hugh MacLennan, Margaret Laurence, W.O. Mitchell, Alice Munro, and Alistair Macleod, and keeps on growing. Ann-Marie MacDonald? Linden MacIntyre?

Q: Who's the most under-rated Scottish writer, dead or alive?

A: That`s easy: James Boswell. He turned Samuel Johnson, that English eccentric, into a towering literary figure. Without Boswell, Johnson would today be a footnote. Not only that, but Boswell created a genre – contemporary biography – while he was going about this work. And then he got slagged for his . . . questionable lifestyle choices. It`s not right.
Ken McGoogan
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No rest for the wicked

Back from sailing in the Northwest Passage, our hero shifts into high gear. . . .
Monday, Oct. 19, 1 p.m., lectures at LIFE in Association with Ryerson University on the history and geography of the Arctic.
Wednesday, Oct. 21, 6:30 p.m., reads and entertains in The EH List Author Series at the Toronto Public Library, Northern District, 40 Orchard View Blvd.
Saturday, Oct. 24, 1 p.m., moderates a panel discussion on Writing Scotland's Past at the International Festival of Authors. Lakeside Terrace, 235 Queen's Quay West.
Ken McGoogan
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Beechey Island Blues

Our hero frets about the Arctic in today's Globe. . .

By Ken McGoogan

The late Pierre Berton liked to describe how in 1853, when Arctic explorer Leopold McClintock was searching for the lost expedition of Sir John Franklin and travelling across spongy, summer-time tundra, he chanced upon cart tracks so fresh that he thought they had been made the previous day. As he studied them, slowly he realized the truth: those tracks had been made by Sir Edward Parry, another Arctic explorer – not yesterday, but thirty-three years before.

The preservative power of the Arctic has loomed large in the Canadian imagination since 1987, when Owen Beattie and John Geiger published Frozen in Time. That book contained photos of the well-preserved bodies of the first three sailors to have died during that last Franklin expedition. Dead since 1846, the three looked as if they might have died last week.

Yet a recent visit to their gravesites on Beechey Island suggests that the preservative power of the Arctic may have met its match – and that match is us. It also reminded me that while Canadians have grown fond of talking about Arctic sovereignty and developing the North, we are failing to take concrete, relatively inexpensive actions that could make a difference both today and tomorrow.

Where to begin? This was my third visit to Beechey Island with Adventure Canada, a conservation-minded travel company based in Mississauga. And the history-rich island, the most famous site in the Arctic, is so confusingly degraded that only on this occasion did I finally sort out what happened where, exactly, in the 1840s and ’50s.

Arriving in two ships late in 1846, the Franklin expedition spent one winter on Beechey before sailing south to its terrible fate. Four years later, in August 1850, American explorer Elisha Kent Kane was among the first men to discover this site. The artistic, articulate Kane sketched the three gravestones, copied their inscriptions, and scoured the area, turning up countless artefacts.

A quarter mile from the graves, he found a neat pile of more than 600 preserved-meat cans. Emptied of food, these cans had been filled with limestone pebbles, “perhaps to serve as convenient ballast on boating expeditions.”

Today, of all that Kane described, only the three headstones (and the bodies before and beneath them) remain – and those headstones are not the originals, which are preserved in Yellowknife, but facsimiles, two of which have been accidentally switched.

The site is further confused by a fourth headstone, which marks the grave of a sailor named Thomas Morgan who died here in 1854; and also by what looks like an unmarked grave, but is in fact the original location of a memorial to Joseph-Rene Bellot, a searcher who died nearby in 1853.

Franklin’s original campsite is today nothing but a shallow pit, unmarked. The 600 pebble-filled tin cans are long gone. About eighty-five of them have been moved a couple of kilometres west to the ruins of Northumberland House, a storehouse erected in 1852-53 in case Franklin should return.

There, half-buried in the sand, those 85 cans form a rusty cross, itself badly damaged. Nearby stand a number of memorials – some of them significant, like Lady Franklin’s monument to Bellot, others irrelevant.

Standing amidst this archaeological chaos, where well-meaning but unaware visitors have bent cans and broken beams, I found myself thinking that they must have arrived unprepared and unguided. A priceless historical record is being destroyed – part of our cultural heritage. And I wondered: Should visitors be banned?

I thought then of a young Inuk woman, a guide I had met a few days before at Kugluktuk, an Inuit settlement at the mouth of the Coppermine River. In 1771, Samuel Hearne had reached that location after an arduous, months-long journey from Churchill on Hudson Bay. To this guide, I had described what Hearne had seen -- seals, tide water markings, an array of islands – and she had been able to lead me to where Hearne must have stood: a bluff overlooking the mouth of the Coppermine River.

That location, the first point charted on the northern coast of North America, and also along the Northwest Passage, remains devoid of signage. After I had spoken of the site to those who accompanied us, and as we walked back into town, the young woman told me, “We need more of these ships stopping here.” She was alluding to the fact that ships bring much-needed spending to any northern community they visit.

Now, on Beechey Island, as I stood amidst the archaeological confusion, I rejected the idea of banning visitors. And surveillance, given the isolation of many sites, is obviously impossible. What we need, I realized anew, is interpretative and cautionary signage at every significant historical site in the north. We should start with Beechey Island, which is both busy and jeopardized, and move on to sites like the mouth of the Coppermine River and Victory Point on King William Island, near where Franklin’s ships got trapped in the ice.

At each site, well-designed interpretive signage should explain and map what exists and caution visitors to ensure that it remains intact. These same interpretative materials should be distributed to travel companies that regularly venture into the Arctic. And those companies should be encouraged or even compelled to follow the example of Adventure Canada, which brings archaeologists, historians and conservationists on every voyage.

As the Northwest Passage becomes increasingly viable, the Arctic will attract more visitors. Relevant sites need protection. And the territory of Nunavut, with a population of 30,000, can hardly be expected to shoulder responsibility. The federal government should act immediately to protect and develop Canada’s exploration history as a natural resource.

Ken McGoogan, a resource historian who sails with Adventure Canada, is the author of four related books about the search for Franklin and the Northwest Passage, the latest of which is Race to the Polar Sea.
Ken McGoogan
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Race to the Polar Sea Wins Honourable Mention

My book Race to the Polar Sea, which is now surfacing in paperback from HarperCollins Canada, has won Honourable Mention in the Keith Matthews Award competition sponsored by the Canadian Nautical Research Society. The annual award recognizes the best book on a maritime topic.
The judges described the work, which tells the story of Arctic explorer Elisha Kent Kane, as "engagingly written, impressively researched, and engrossing." The author's discovery of a long-lost journal, they wrote, as well as his "effective interweaving of documentary and published evidence, and his infectious enthusiasm for the subject, combine to resurrect Kane as an important figure in the history of Canada's north."
Sure, they went on a bit, but why not? "Parts biography, adventure tale, and romance, this work makes an important contribution to Arctic and environmental history."
The winning book was At the Far Reaches of Empire by Freeman Tovell, which celebrates a Spanish sea captain, Bodega y Quadra, who explored the Pacific Northwest prior to 1800. The Nautical Research Society doubles as the Canadian national sub-commission of the International Commission for Maritime History.
Ken McGoogan
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Just say yes to naked books!

In the Globe and Mail Book Section, I rebut a rebuttal: can we stop obsessing, please, about what makes a Canadian author Canadian and focus our attention on individual books?

By Ken McGoogan

Last updated on Saturday, Aug. 15, 2009 04:09AM EDT

If we look at literature from a national perspective, as distinct from taking a generic, thematic or period approach, we have to clarify what belongs and why. Here in Canada, we have drifted into defining Canadian Literature according to authorial nationality. We say it is literature written by Canadians.

But then we face a question: How do we define Canadian? Looking at Ed O'Loughlin, long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, we discover that he was born in Toronto and lived in Canada for his first six years. And some of us end up claiming that a novel written by an Irishman, and set in Ireland and Africa, is Canadian.

Instead of falling repeatedly into this trap, I say we forget the author and his or her nationality. Instead, let's look at the naked book and ask: Does this work belong to Canadian literature? No biography, no authorial opinions. Is this book of special interest to Canadians? Is it set in Canada? Does it feature Canadian characters? Does it explore Canadian themes? Does it manifest a sensibility that is distinctly Canadian? Is it relevant in some unexpected way?

I am suggesting that we follow those countless scholars who have long since identified The History of Emily Montague as the first Canadian novel. Author Frances Brooke (1724-1789) was English. Yet she wrote a novel that belongs to this place – and so to Canadian literature. Why can't other foreign nationals do the same?

Certainly, I can make a case for Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale or Mavis Gallant's Stories From the Fifteenth District, which could only have been written by Canadians; and also for a memoir set partly in this country. Conversely, I see no way to claim Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano – not without going outside the book. Nor do I see anything Canadian about Brian Moore's Judith Hearne.

On the other hand, I can make a case for his The Luck of Ginger Coffey, set in Montreal – and likewise for Rawi Hage's Cockroach, Michael Ondaatje's In The Skin of a Lion and Dionne Brand's What We All Long For. In these last, all written by authors born outside Canada, we see on-page proof of “civic identification.”

Will posterity accept less? I doubt it. One hundred years from now, if people are still studying Canadian literature, those who prepare reading lists won't be contemplating an author's persona or promotional strategies. They will make choices based on the books in front of them.

Ken McGoogan is the author most recently of Race to the Polar Sea.
Ken McGoogan
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What? Almost autumn already?

This autumn, according to Savvy Reader, Our Hero will spend sixteen days sailing in the Northwest Passage with Adventure Canada. Afterwards, he'll wax eloquent about that voyage in two different cities while showcasing his book Race to the Polar Sea.
On October 21, as part of The Eh List Author Series, Ken will speak at the Toronto Public Library, Northern District, starting at 6:30 p.m.
Then on November 17, he will be a featured author at Explore The North, an evening of conversation, food, art, music and artifacts slated for the Museum of Civilization in Ottawa. That event kicks off with a cocktail reception at 6 p.m., and Ken will talk about Polar Sea and Fatal Passage, which was turned into a BBC docudrama. Joining him on stage will be Elizabeth Hay, who won the 2007 Giller Prize with Late Nights on Air, and Charlotte Gray, whose books include Sisters of the Wilderness and Reluctant Genius.
Between those events, on Saturday October 24 at 1 p.m., Ken will moderate a round table discussion at the International Festival of Authors. He is writing a book about the Scottish influence on Canada, and the subject of the panel is Writing Scotland’s Past.
Ken McGoogan
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CanLit lives! Analyze books, not authors. . .

Our Hero turns up in Globe and Mail Books (Aug. 8/09) arguing that when we think about Canadian literature, we should analyze books, not authors. The electronic version at the other end of the link comes complete with a little known photo of Malcolm Lowry . . .

By Ken McGoogan

The literary mavens are at it again: demanding to know how we define “a Canadian author.” This time, the inspiration is the just-released long list for the Man Booker Prize – a list apparently devoid of Canadians.

Or no, wait: turns out Ed O’Loughlin, the Dublin-based, 42-year-old author of Not Untrue and Not Unkind, was born in Toronto. O’Loughlin spent his first six years in Edmonton, and his next thirty-six in other countries, mostly Ireland. No matter: one writer calls him Canada’s “torchbearer,” while a headline declares him “the only Canadian long-listed” for the prestigious Man Booker.

At that point, the literati begin to agonize – and not for the first time. What makes an author Canadian? Place of birth? Current residence? When does an immigrant author become a Canadian? What happens when a Canadian-born writer turns American? Confusion, angst, disgruntlement: this is what comes of investigating authors instead of books.

A couple of years ago, here in the Globe and Mail, I reviewed an historical novel that recreated the harrowing true story of the final expedition of Sir John Franklin. As most readers know, Franklin disappeared into the Arctic in 1845 with two ships and 128 men, leaving behind a welter of questions.

Because the Franklin tragedy stands at the heart of Canadian history, it has attracted the attention of authors as diverse as Pierre Berton, Margaret Atwood, John Geiger, Rudy Wiebe, Gwendolyn MacEwen, and Mordecai Richler.

The novel I reviewed, The Terror, transformed the Franklin saga into a supernatural, hell-bent narrative. I declared the book a tour de force and added: “The author's nationality notwithstanding, this novel is far more deserving of specifically Canadian attention than the majority of the books that, come autumn, we will see short-listed for this country's most prestigious literary prizes.”

This prediction was a no-brainer. Despite its manifest relevance to Canadian readers, The Terror was not even eligible for most of this country’s literary awards. Why not? Well, because it was written by Dan Simmons -- an American.

At that point, I began to wonder. When we talk about a work of Canadian literature, wouldn’t we be wiser to look at the book and not at the nationality of its author? Wouldn’t it be wiser to ask: Does a given work speak specifically to Canadians as distinct from Albanians, Bolivians, Belgians or Americans? If it does, then isn’t that enough to make it a Canadian work?

Take a novel written by a native Canadian and set in Canada. Obviously, it’s Canadian. But of course a work can be Canadian without being set here. If a novel is written by someone who came of age in this country, and so was psychologically shaped by this place, his or her creations can only be Canadian. Attitude and sensibility inform a literary work no matter what the setting, which is why Mavis Gallant will forever speak to Canadians.

English literature offers an illustration: Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkein. That trilogy is set not in England but in Middle Earth – yet it remains as jolly-old-English as a pint of bitter. If anyone disputed this, I believe I could demonstrate the Englishness of that epic.

Giving priority to the work over the author is no revolutionary idea. When scholars hunt the first Canadian novel, they invariably turn up The History of Emily Montague. Set in eighteenth-century Quebec, it was written by Frances Brooke, an Englishwoman who spent a year in the colonial wilds. She wrote numerous other books that have nothing to do with Canada, and scholars rightly claim none of them for this country.

Consider Malcolm Lowry, also born and raised in England. He is best-known for Under the Volcano, a modernist masterpiece set in Mexico. He wrote much of it in British Columbia, but the book shows no evidence of that. And I don’t see that we can claim it for Canadian literature. Lowry’s October Ferry to Gabriola, however, is set in the Gulf Islands. Clearly it belongs to Canadian literature, as well as to British. It illustrates the point that a work can belong to two or more national literatures.

The same is true of certain works of Brian Moore. His novel Judith Hearne, set in his native Ireland, can not be considered Canadian. But his Luck of Ginger Coffey is set in Montreal, speaks directly to Canadians, and so belongs to the literature of this country, as well as to that of Ireland.

In 2010, Richard Ford, the celebrated American author, will publish “a novel of revenge and violent retribution set on the Saskatchewan prairie.” This work, entitled Canada, will rightly be recognized as an American novel. Because of its subject matter, however, it will speak specifically to Canadians. So, yes, it will also belong to Canadian literature. It will have dual nationality.

What about The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penny? That mystery is set in Canada in the 1860s. The author is a Scot who never visited this country – but clearly, that is irrelevant. Thanks to geography and history, the novel speaks specifically to Canadians. It belongs to Canadian literature. And the same is true of certain works by American Howard Norman and Scotland’s Margaret Elphinstone.

So much for books produced by foreign writers. Situating works by Canadian immigrant authors is equally entertaining. But here I would observe that if we accept to look at literature through the prism of nationality, rather than through genre, for example, then the words “Canadian literature” have to mean something.

To my mind, Canadian literature is variously bilingual, multicultural, multiracial, multiethnic, post-colonial, post-modern, and even multi-national. By it is not post-national. At this final fork in our argument, then, we take the nationalist path identified by Rudyard Griffiths (Who We Are: A Citizen’s Manifesto) rather than the internationalist one highlighted by Pico Iyer, who has suggested that Canada has a post-national literature.

I would say no, it does not. Canadians contribute to international literature, certainly. But this country, Canada, has a Canadian literature. And immigrant authors -- among them Austin Clark, Michael Ondaatje, Dionne Brand, Neil Bissoondath, Nalo Hopkinson, and Rawi Hage – are producing some of its most exciting works.

Immigrant Canadian authors face extra choices. They can speak to Canadians, to readers of a native land, to a particular diaspora, or they can go international and address Americans and Belgians as directly as Canadians. This last is the Pico Iyer option, and both M.G. Vassanji and Rohinton Mistry have chosen it.

A Fine Balance, set in India, shows what can result. Critics have argued that Mistry could not have written this shining novel while living in India, and probably they are correct. But the novel reflects nothing of Canada, speaks equally to Canadians and Norwegians, and could have been written in England, Ireland, France, the United States, or you name it.

Whenever he chooses, Mistry can write a Canadian novel -- and probably a towering one. To call A Fine Balance a Canadian work, however, is like laying claim to Under The Volcano. It’s wishful thinking.

And that leaves only Ed O’Loughlin and his Man Booker contender, Not Untrue and Not Unkind. The product of a sensibility shaped elsewhere, the novel focuses on an Irish foreign correspondent who shuttles between Dublin and Africa. To see it claimed as Canadian is embarrassing.

Toronto author Ken McGoogan spent two decades as a book reviewer and literary columnist. He sails as a historian with Adventure Canada and writes Canadian narratives, the latest of which is Race to the Polar Sea.
Ken McGoogan
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Creative Non-fiction Workshop

Back by popular demand: my Creative Non-fiction workshop at University of Toronto. What the heck is CNF, anyway? We hear the term applied to all kinds of writing. How does Creative Non-fiction differ from journalism? From academic writing? From short stories and novels? Is it okay to mix and match? Why does Our Hero prefer the term "Narrative Non-fiction?" I discovered CNF in the late 1990s when, while writing a book called Fatal Passage, I began bringing together everything I had learned from publishing three novels and thousands of journalistic articles. In answer to early questions: Yes, autobiography and memoir certainly belong to the genre, as does the research-based narrative.

My workshops are you-focused, you-driven. I lead discussions and some in-class "workouts." In responding to works-in-progress, I am craft-oriented (I have spent crazy amounts of time thinking about craft). This introductory session runs eight weeks, Tuesday nights from 6:30 to 9, starting October 6, 2009. Registration is open ( Administrative questions, contact Content queries, drop me an email.
Ken McGoogan
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The Last Voyage of Henry Hudson

So here's a review that turned up in the Globe on July 11.

FATAL JOURNEY:The Final Expedition of Henry Hudson

By Peter C. Mancall (Basic Books, 288 pages, $31)

By Ken McGoogan

Four centuries ago next year, on April 17, 1610, Henry Hudson sailed out of London on a small wooden ship called Discovery. A veteran explorer with three northern voyages behind him, Hudson brought with him twenty-one men and two boys, one of whom was his son.

Backed by two dozen wealthy Londoners – merchants, politicians and gentlemen – Hudson was sailing to find a Northwest Passage, a direct water route through North America that would allow European ships to reach the East Indies.

Seventeen months later, in September 1611, the Discovery would arrive back carrying seven men and one boy. Hudson and his son would not be among those who returned. And the deck of the ship would be stained with blood.

The story of what happened on that voyage is a famous tragedy of northern exploration history. As I have noted before, the image of Henry Hudson set adrift in a small boat with seven men and a boy, victims of mutiny in a forbidding landscape, haunts anyone who contemplates it.

In Fatal Journey: The Final Expedition of Henry Hudson, historian Peter C. Mancall offers no startling revelations. But his sense of seventeenth-century England is so strong that this book is worth reading for context alone.

In 1610, at the end of the Elizabethan Age, he tells us, London was “a city awash with mercantile enthusiasm and maritime pride.” At any given time, 2,000 English ships might be at sea, many of them coming and going from the Spice Islands of the East Indies: “cinnamon, cloves, peppers, and other exotic flora had captured the imagination of the English,” Mancall observes, and “much money was to be made in satisfying the newly sophisticated national palate.”

The lust for spices had fuelled the search for the elusive Northwest Passage, inspiring voyages by Martin Frobisher, Humphrey Gilbert and John Davis, among others. Mancall sets the stage before he details Hudson’s career, although he also summarizes the whole story in his opening chapter.

This mistake drains his narrative of energy. But Mancall is a scholar, a professor of history and anthropology at the University of Southern California, and not a professional writer. He follows academic conventions to the letter, confining himself strictly to exposition, and never, never, never breaking into a scene. As a result, he lets opportunities slip away.

At one tense moment during Hudson’s final voyage, for example, with the ship trapped amongst ice floes, Mancall quotes a witness as observing that “there were some who then spake words, which were remembered a great while after.” He quotes details from that account, with one sailor declaring that “if he had a hundred pounds he would give ninety for the chance to return to London.” The ship’s carpenter retorts “that if he had that much money, he wouldn’t even give up ten pounds – because he believed that the expedition would be a success.”

In the hands of a craftsman with a more literary imagination, this altercation could have become a vivid scene. Instead, we get long-distance observation and quotation from the documentary record.

And yet the saga emerges. The mutineers claimed that, as supplies ran out and men neared starvation, Hudson hoarded food and fed his favourites. Also, by demoting those with navigational skills and appointing an illiterate first mate, Hudson had taken sole control of the ship’s route. Having narrowly survived one horrendous winter locked in the ice of James Bay, he appeared bent on risking a second – and this some of the men could or would not tolerate.

Mancall stops far short of justifying the mutineers. He remains irreproachably even-handed, and offers comparisons to show that some of those who made it home were lucky to escape the death penalty.

One bit of confusion arises towards the end of the narrative. Mancall tells us that the mutinous Juet survived most of the voyage: “He died, apparently from starvation, before the ship managed to dock on Ireland’s west coast.” But later, without clarification, he quotes a ship’s captain identifying a location as the spot “where the villains Greene and Juet were slain, after they had exposed Master Hudson.” Fine, the captain had his facts wrong.

More questionable is Mancall’s dismissal of the oral history relating to a spot near the bottom of James Bay known locally as “Young Englishman.” He notes that, picking up the story after the abandoned sailors reach shore, “one legend purports that John Hudson trudged southward, where he found Samuel Champlain . . . but there is no evidence to support it.” Also, “a recent expedition to find a purported grave proved fruitless.”

But in his recent book God’s Mercies: Rivalry, Betrayal and the Dream of Discovery, author Douglas Hunter describes how Champlain learned that some Algonquins had enslaved an English youth, clearly Hudson’s son, and travelled overland to free him.

Apparently, the sailors had tried to steal food and got massacred – all but one, this enslaved youth. But Champlain met so much resistance as he neared the implicated tribe that he abandoned the search.

Oral tradition says the boy was murdered at the place called Young Englishman. If John Hudson was dead by the time Champlain came looking for him, the killers would have had good reason to resist his approach.

Mancall does a splendid job of situating Hudson’s last voyage in the context of British exploration. But those marking the 400th anniversary of the expedition might want to supplement their reading with God’s Mercies.

Ken McGoogan is the author of Fatal Passage, which inspired a BBC docudrama, and Race to the Polar Sea.
Ken McGoogan
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Ah, so! A reviewer of taste and intelligence

The book is written by Peter Mancall. But the significant bit in the Winnipeg Free Press review turns up in the third sentence, when Ian Stewart writes: "From the point of view of this armchair voyager, Mancall ranks with the finest contemporary Canadian writers in Arctic and Western Canadian exploration history, Ken McGoogan, D’Arcy Jennish and Heather Robertson, as a first-class storyteller."
Ken McGoogan
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Lucky Seventeen

Ottawa writer Rob McLennan keeps a terrific literary blog.
One of the highlights is 12-or-20-questions, in which
he enters into a dialogue with various writers. He stumped me
with three questions, but I managed to answer seventeen --
long a lucky number for me. The dialogue begins . . .

1 - How did your first book change your life?

My first book did not change my life. Neither did my second, third, or fourth. While writing and publishing those books, I continued working at my full-time job in journalism. And I kept the only schedule that ever worked for me, and which I had followed for years before I published my first book: get up at 5 a.m. (or earlier) and write until 8:30 or so, then have breakfast and head off to the newsroom.

For the rest, click on Lucky Seventeen . . .
Ken McGoogan
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Film based on Fatal Passage wins a Rockie

Wonderful to see the movie version of Fatal Passage getting the attention it deserves.
The Grand Prize for best Canadian program at the Banff World Television Awards -- commonly called a "Rockie" -- has gone to the 90-minute docudrama, Passage, which is based on my book.
It tells the story of John Rae, the Orcadian explorer who solved the two great mysteries of 19th-century Arctic exploration, discovering both the fate of the lost Franklin expedition and the final link in the Northwest Passage.
The film was produced by PTV Productions for BBC Scotland, and directed by John Walker. Your faithful blogger not only wrote the book and served as a consultant, but makes an appearance in the London sections of the film, which were shot in the British Admiralty offices.
Published originally in 2001, Fatal Passage won four literary awards, among them the Drainie-Taylor Biography Prize, the Canadian Authors' Association History Prize, and an American Christopher Award.
The book continues to sell well in Canada, the U.S., the U.K. and Australia.
Ken McGoogan
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Shout out to Richard Flanagan!

Sooner or later, you knew I would get around to reading "Wanting," an acclaimed novel set partly in Tasmania, and featuring my old familiar friends Jane Franklin, John Franklin, Charles Dickens and Mathinna, the aboriginal girl Jane adopted. It's a wonderful work but in case you think me biased . . . .
A Los Angeles Times reviewer wrote that in "Wanting," author Richard Flanagan has written an exquisite, profoundly moving, intricately structured meditation about the desire for human connection in its many forms." The Sun-Herald affirms that the novel moves "seamlessly through time, across two continents and between three story-lines," while remaining "a marvel of precision and cohesion." And the Sydney Morning Herald writer declared flatly: “This is the best novel I have read this year or expect to read for several more.”
Flanagan's novels have been published in more than two dozen countries, and from this one, you can see why.
OK, so the biggest treat for me came later at, where in his background notes, the author writes: "Ken McGoogan's Fatal Passage (2001) and Lady Franklin's Revenge (2006) alerted me to the unusual story of Dr. John Rae and the complex achievement of Lady Jane Franklin."
It's a simple thing to do, acknowledge your sources, but you'd be amazed at how often creators prove unable to muster the requisite grace. So: hats off to Richard Flanagan. And check out this fine novel.
Ken McGoogan
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Bookish ex-farmer inspires unrepetant urbanite

This reminiscence of mine turned up a while back on the Facts & Arguments page in the Globe and Mail. Surely it deserves a second life in cyberspace?

The time: July, 1975. The place: Nelson, British Columbia.

A young Canadian urbanite, desperate for a summer job, finds work as a "green-chain man" at a sawmill (now long gone) operated by Kootenay Forest Products.

Five days a week, wearing a hardhat and steel-toed boots, he spends eight hours hauling planks off the green chain, essentially a giant conveyer belt. Like his brawnier co-workers, the urbanite stacks these boards behind him according to length – ten feet long, twelve feet, sixteen – on flatbed cars that a more senior worker will roll away on rails.

Each night, the urbanite suffers a recurring nightmare. Just as he finishes loading a flatbed car to shoulder height, the whole pile starts to topple – which means he will have to restack the boards while keeping pace with those whizzing past on the green chain. At this point, he wakes up, hollering.

Against this backdrop, the urbanite meets the bookish ex-farmer. Their respective wives, working temporarily as tellers in the same bank, had got talking. Soon, both women had confessed the same dark, dirty secret: "My husband is an aspiring writer."

The urbanite took himself seriously in those days, as writers in their twenties do, and he wasn't especially keen to meet another scribbler. After all, what were the chances that this ex-farmer was serious? That he had the grit, savvy and stamina to survive in the literary jungle? Already the man was in his late thirties.

But the women persisted, and one evening, after soaking in a hot bath, the young urbanite met the ex-farmer. To his surprise, he got yakking about life and writing and favorite authors and didn't stop talking for three hours. This old guy was the real thing – and no pretension about him.

In the weeks that followed, the couples got together often, and always the two men yammered into the night. So when you were in Mexico, writing fiction in Oaxaca, I was on the fire lookout in the Rockies, typing away in my tower! In some ways, they had little in common. A dozen years older, originally from Minnesota, the ex-farmer had spent four years in the American Navy, between the Korean and the Vietnam Wars. Having immigrated to Canada as part of the "back to the land" movement, he and his wife were about to move to a cabin twenty miles north of Nelson.

The urbanite would soon return to Toronto, to resume journalism studies at Ryerson. But here, besides "serious writing," was something else the men had in common. After his stint in the navy, the ex-farmer had earned a degree in journalism. Since then, he had worked at The Chicago Tribune and The Detroit Free Press. He had sailed to Europe to write the Great American Novel, but got distracted during the voyage by the woman who had since become his wife.

Meanwhile, the ex-farmer had kept writing fiction. He had published half a dozen short stories in men's magazines, those publications never purchased for their photographs. Still, the young urbanite had to admit it: this old guy could write. And yet, and yet: soon he would turn forty. Surely he had missed his time?

When summer ended, the men vowed to remain in touch. And, incredibly, for the next thirty-two years, they did precisely that – first through letters, later by email. Occasionally, when the urbanite lived in Vancouver or Calgary, the couples would get together and yammer into the night.

During those decades, while earning his daily bread as a journalist, the young urbanite began publishing books. The ex-farmer responded with kudos and applause. He called the urbanite an inspiration. And, while holding down energy-draining jobs, raising a family, and commuting back and forth to his cabin in the woods outside Nelson, he kept writing. He wrote and wrote and wrote, and he submitted – but nobody wanted what he sent out.

The ex-farmer kept writing and submitting. Then, in 1990, with a narrative essay harking back to his boyhood on a farm, he won the creative nonfiction prize in the CBC Literary Competition. During the next five years, make that ten and then fifteen, the ex-farmer elaborated that essay, writing and polishing. Again and again, he would receive encouraging feedback, near-acceptances – but then, for reasons having nothing to do with the quality of the work, he would receive a rejection.

So it went until last year, when sharp-eyed editors at Oolichan Books, a literary publisher on the West Coast, perceived that this ex-farmer's memoir was no journeyman effort, but haunting and elegant – a masterpiece of life-writing. They made a modest offer, the ex-farmer accepted, and this year, having reached the age of seventy-two, Ross Klatte published his first book, Leaving The Farm.

On reading the finished work, while sitting in the sunshine at the centre of the universe, the urbanite, no longer young, could only gaze west and raise a glass of dry red wine. He drank to the ex-farmer, Ross Klatte, who lives still in the woods outside Nelson, an inspiration not only to the urbanite, but to anyone who reads him.
Ken McGoogan
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Fatal Passage fuels Inuit refutation at British Museum

First came my book Fatal Passage, which revealed the dastardly machinations of Jane Franklin and Charles Dickens. PTV Productions based a docudrama on the book (Passage) which aired on BBC Scotland and won acclaim at film festivals in Canada. Tagak Curley and I met during the London filming of key segments of the movie. And John Rae keeps on keeping on . . . .

Nunavut politician to address British museum on Inuit role in Franklin expedition
Last Updated: Friday, May 22, 2009
CBC News

Nunavut cabinet minister Tagak Curley is set to speak at a museum in England this weekend, hoping to refute what he says are false claims of Inuit as murderers of Sir John Franklin's crew in the Northwest Passage in the mid-1800s.

Curley, an Inuit history buff as well as Nunavut's health minister, has been invited by the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich to speak at the opening Saturday of an exhibition on Franklin's doomed 1845 expedition through the fabled passage.

Inuit have long been cast in a negative light since Charles Dickens wrote The Lost Arctic Voyagers, which accused Inuit of being murderers and cannibals.

"We need to try and resolve this conflict," Curley told CBC News.

"Unless the roots are dealt with, we cannot establish the true reconciliation and healing for all that matter."

In 1845, Franklin and his crew aboard HMS Terror and HMS Erebus set sail from London to search for the Northwest Passage, but disappeared during the trip, sparking speculation about what happened.

Commissioned by Franklin's wife, Jane, Dickens's 1854 work refuted one published earlier by explorer John Rae, who wrote that Franklin's crew may have fallen ill to scurvy and resorted to cannibalism.

Curley said he's disturbed by how some people still believe the author's claims today.

"It put an image of Inuit as not worth trusting," he said.

"They were called treacherous and to that extent, more like not humans at all. So I got quite annoyed with that."

Curley said history needs to be set straight, adding that he wants a plaque erected with the truth written on it.

But until Franklin's ships are found, the long-disputed question of what really happened to Franklin and his crew may never go away, said Canadian author Ken McGoogan, who has written extensively on both Franklin and Rae.

"We're never going to put this to rest," McGoogan said with a laugh. "That's my simplest answer, because this is a mystery at the heart of our history."

Curley said he is defending Inuit who are no longer alive, who were falsely accused of murder.
Ken McGoogan
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Literary Review of Canada

The April issue of The Literary Review of Canada carried a terrific review of Race to the Polar Sea. Editor Bronwyn Drainie encourages authors to respond to reviews, and I happily did so. The May issue of LRC, which is turning up now in better bookstores, carries letters from John Ralston Saul and Stephen Clarkson, as well as the following from yours truly.

Re: “Frozen Moments,” by Mark Lovewell (April 2009).

In his generous, insightful review of my book Race to the Polar Sea, Mark Lovewell poses questions that reflect a serious engagement with the work. He asks whether Elisha Kent Kane, the focus of this biographical narrative, “fully deserves the resuscitated reputation McGoogan gives him.” He notes that, in Lady Franklin’s Revenge, I “finessed” the challenge of re-contextualizing John Rae, the subject of Fatal Passage; and he suggests that, in Polar Sea, it “would have been well worth the effort” to reprise that approach, and to situate Kane in relation to Rae.

These related challenges spring from one misconception. Polar Sea is not the latest instalment in a “string of exploration biographies,” as Lovewell believes, but the fourth and final volume in an Arctic Discovery Quartet.

Now it can be told: while “meticulous research” is indeed integral to my methodology, my approach is not scholarly and analytical but literary. The work’s architecture I “borrowed” from Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, which I regard as brilliantly conceived (though so grotesquely overwritten that today I find it impenetrable).

The four-part structure of both quartets is akin to that of the conventional pop song: verse, verse, bridge, verse. Durrell’s three “verses” are first-person accounts, the last of which signals a significant shift. In the pop song, the bridge differs from the verses in melody, measure and rhyme scheme. Durrell’s bridging novel, the third in the quartet, finds an omniscient, third-person narrator re-contextualizing events from a distance. Dramatic difference is part of the point.

In my Arctic Discovery Quartet, the three “verses” – Fatal Passage, Ancient Mariner and Polar Sea -- are stand-alone narratives that treat individual explorers who developed exemplary relations with aboriginal peoples. And my final verse, Race to the Polar Sea, marks a significant shift: starting with Elisha Kent Kane, explorers turned from seeking the Northwest Passage to making for the North Pole. My bridging volume, Lady Franklin’s Revenge, treats Arctic exploration from a distance, and re-contextualizes it.

In a way, Lovewell is right. A comparison of John Rae and Elisha Kent Kane would be well worth the effort. And including Samuel Hearne would only enrich the result. But such an analysis is the province of the academic dissertation. To introduce it into the narrative of Polar Sea would be to sing the melody of the “bridge” to the lyric of the “verse” – painfully wrong.
Ken McGoogan
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Our hero surfaces in Up Here magazine

You've got to love a shout line on the front of the magazine: "Author Ken McGoogan on Cook, Peary & the Polar Centennial." And the article takes a position. I'm sorry to report that it's not accessible online. Guess Up Here wants you to subscribe. Anyway, the piece beings like so:

One hundred years ago this month one of the worst injustices in Arctic exploration history began unfolding on the northwest coast of Greenland. On April 18, 1909 an American doctor and two Inuit hunters struggled to the top of an icy ridge and looked out over a familiar scattering of igloos. Below, less than a mile away, lay the settlement of Anoatok, which they had left 14 months previously. Exhausted from an unprecedented ordeal, the three rose to their feet and waved, then huddled together and waited while old friends hitched up dog teams and drove out to collect them.

On reaching the bedraggled trio, the rescuers could only gape in disbelief. Emaciated and filthy, with wild, unkempt hair falling to their shoulders, the three looked half-human. But then came recognition, and everybody talking at once, and one of the rescuers, a tall, blond white American, stepped forward from one of the sledges. “Doctor Frederick Cook?” He held out his hand: “Harry Whitney. We are honoured to greet you.”

The doctor and his friends, Etuk and Wela, “had been so long in the chill of impending death,” Cook wrote later, “that compared to Whitney and to the Eskimos about, we were but half-alive.”

Back at the village, speaking English for the first time in more than a year, a dazed Cook learned that Whitney was a sportsman hunting polar bear, and that he had arrived here on a ship with Cook’s old mentor, the explorer Robert E. Peary. While bathing and eating, the exhausted doctor asked about his steward, Rudolph Franke, whom he had left here guarding a shack filled with fox furs and narwhal horns worth tens of thousands of dollars.

Franke had taken sick, he was told. Peary had allowed him to sail home on his second ship on condition that he hand over the doctor’s goods – “like ransom,” Cook wrote later, “sought from an enemy.” Not only that, but Cook learned that Peary had declared him dead, and had installed two crewmen in his shack, where even now they were gorging on the stores he had stowed for his own return.

Despite this unsettling news, Cook remained unflappable. When Whitney remarked on his calm, the doctor told him: “If you keep this quiet for the present, I will tell you some great news. I have reached the Pole.”
Ken McGoogan
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Creative Non-Fiction rolls into the Beaches


Would-be writers are clamoring to learn more about creative non-fiction.
An initial workshop offering at the Beaches Library, slated for April 18, apparently filled up before the advertising went out. So The Writers' Trust of Canada, sponsors of the workshop, asked after a second date, and we settled on May 9.

The revised poster (slightly truncated) reads as follows:

“Discovering Creative Non-Fiction”
Saturday, April 18, 2009 1pm – 3pm
and Saturday, May 9, 2009, 1pm - 3pm
Toronto Public Library – Beaches Branch

What is Creative Non-fiction? How does it differ from academic writing? From short stories and novels? From journalism? After earning two degrees, working as a journalist for three Canadian dailies, and publishing three novels, author Ken McGoogan discovered Creative Non-Fiction and began winning awards.

Starting with Fatal Passage, a national bestseller that won four prizes, Ken has applied CNF techniques to four acclaimed books. He will take you behind the scenes of his own work with a slide-show presentation that ranges from London, England to Orkney, and from Tasmania to the High Arctic.

Does the non-fiction novel exist? What is immersion reporting? Should we try to distinguish between literary journalism, narrative non-fiction and polemical non-fiction? Ken will explore these questions while leading a dynamic workshop that gets people writing and sharing on the spot.

KEN MCGOOGAN, whose books include Lady Franklin's Revenge and Race to the Polar Sea, teaches Creative Non-Fiction at University of Toronto. A recipient of the Pierre Berton Award for History, Ken is vice-chairman of the Public Lending Right Commission. He lives in the Beaches.


Ken McGoogan
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Britain to debate Arctic explorer's image makeover

You gotta love a national news service when a superb story turns up in newspapers across the country -- like this one, say, by Randy Boswell of Canwest, which surfaced in the Montreal Gazette and The Vancouver Sun and probably a few other places.

By Randy Boswell
Canwest News Service

A Canadian writer's decade-long campaign to restore the reputation of an unsung Arctic explorer has finally reached the British House of Commons, inspiring a Scottish MP's bid to rewrite the history engraved on the hallowed walls of Westminster Abbey.

Fatal Passage, an award-winning 2001 book by Toronto author Ken McGoogan, argued that scholars and British officialdom had largely overlooked the 19th-century achievements of John Rae, a Scottish-born Hudson's Bay Company employee who, in 1854, discovered the grim fate of the lost Franklin Expedition.

Rae's search also led to him finding the last link in the fabled Northwest Passage — the very sea route through Canada's Arctic islands, which Sir John Franklin had been seeking when he perished with his 129-man crew in the late 1840s.

But Rae also created a storm of outrage in Britain by reporting that members of Franklin's crew cannibalized the dead in a desperate — though ultimately ill-fated — attempt to survive their ordeal. Rae's suggestion, McGoogan has argued, led to his virtual erasure from the pages of history, as posthumous glory was heaped on Franklin, and other explorers were given credit for Rae's achievements.

Now, Orkney and Shetland MP Alistair Carmichael is urging the U.K. Parliament to officially recognize Rae as the true discoverer of the passage. And he wants the country to correct the claims in two high-profile, "inaccurate" historical markers paying tribute to the Englishman Franklin: one inside the abbey and the other near the headquarters of the British Admiralty.

[To read the whole article, click on the title.]
Ken McGoogan
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Celebrating a Buried Treasure

If you missed it in the Globe . . .

Buried Treasures / An Arctic adventurer worth remembering
Elisha Kent Kane was a superstar adventurer and writer in the 19th century but is remembered today only by specialists and aficionados

Globe and Mail
February 28, 2009

Back in New York City after spending two years in the High Arctic, explorer Elisha Kent Kane went with friends to dine at the legendary Century Club. After dinner, while the men sat drinking sherry and smoking cigars, someone introduced Dr. Kane to British author William Makepeace Thackeray, already famous for Vanity Fair.

Prompted by others, Kane – who had published one book about northern exploration – began recounting the story of his latest expedition. According to Harper's Monthly Magazine, Thackeray and the other men “listened like schoolboys might listen to Sinbad the sailor.” When Kane was done, the hefty Thackeray rose from his chair, approached the table and asked a mutual acquaintance, “Do you think the Doctor will permit me to stoop down and kiss his boots?”

The 35-year-old Kane, born a storyteller in 1820, had divided his life between adventuring and writing. Before undertaking this latest expedition, he had descended into a volcano in the Philippines, fought pirates on the River Nile, infiltrated slave traders in West Africa and narrowly survived a stab wound in the Sierra Madre while fighting in the Mexican-American war. . . .

To read the rest, simply click on the title of this entry . . .
Ken McGoogan
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Ken McGoogan on the Ice

During my 2008 Arctic voyage with Adventure Canada, we visited Beechey Island, site of the first three graves of the lost Franklin expedition of 1845. Elisha Kent Kane, the subject of my book Race to the Polar Sea, was one of the first to discover those three graves. I was trying to locate the precise spot where Kane was standing when a sailor came tumbling over a snow-covered ridge hollering, "Graves! We've found graves!" But as we were making our way towards it, suddenly a polar bear started moving rapidly around a bay in our direction. A polar bear can outrun a race horse, so we beat it back to the zodiacs.

Ken McGoogan
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Say goodbye to John Steinbeck

Say goodbye to John Steinbeck"An unfortunately timeless classic . . .
When a politician tried to ban a book in Alberta, Ken McGoogan wrote a protest song. It's a tune that still needs singing today"

That was the headline at the Globe and Mail Books website, where editor Peter Scowen posted and introduced Say Goodbye to John Steinbeck. He filled in a few blanks as follows . . . .

"What we have here is a YouTube video featuring Ken McGoogan, bestselling author of Race to the Polar Sea, back in his singer-songwriter days in Calgary.

McGoogan wrote this song in the 1990s "after a government MLA stood up in the legislature and brandished a petition calling for the banning of Of Mice and Men, the classic novel by John Steinbeck. I still remember reading about this in a newspaper for the first time, and the way the blood rushed to my head. I was writing and performing songs in those days, and the result was Say Goodbye to John Steinbeck."

McGoogan says others felt the same way and together they managed to stop the politician from banning the book.

McGoogan pulled the video from his archives in time for Freedom to Read week (Feb. 22-28). "Would-be censors, it turns out, are like the living dead in SF movies: you stop some of them, but others just keep coming in waves," he says. "The only good thing about them is that they keep this song timely and relevant."

As for the band, it performed in the mid to late 90s in and around Calgary, and was called Ken McGoogan and the Immoral Minority. Says McGoogan: "On keyboards, you see Frank 'Freeman' Huether, who had played mostly jazz around town; and on drums, 'The Monster' Fred Engel, who had worked professionally as a session man here in Toronto. I was writing a lot of songs in those days, and we did all original tunes. Say Goodbye to John Steinbeck was one of our 'greatest hits.'"
Ken McGoogan
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Say Goodbye to John Steinbeck

On Feb. 27, during Freedom to Read Week, I'll be part of Closer to the Land: Freedom of Expression and the Environment, an extravaganza slated for the Toronto Reference Library. I won't bring my guitar that night, but to mark the occasion, I've ransacked the musical archive and voila: Say Goodbye to John Steinbeck. I wrote this song when I was living in Calgary, after a government MLA stood up in the legislature and brandished a petition calling for the banning of Of Mice and Men, the classic novel by John Steinbeck. I still remember reading about this in a newspaper for the first time, and the way the blood rushed to my head. I was writing and performing songs in those days, and the result was Say Goodbye to John Steinbeck. Turned out lots of people felt the same way I did, and we killed that particular campaign. Would-be censors, it turns out, are like the living dead in SF movies: you stop some of them, but others just keep coming in waves. The only good thing about them is that they keep this song timely and relevant.

Ken McGoogan
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Polar Sea video draws on latest voyage

So here it is, my first YouTube video. It's called Polar Sea, which is short for Race to the Polar Sea, and it draws on my latest Arctic voyage with Adventure Canada. We sailed north towards the Pole in the wake of Elisha Kent Kane, but didn't get as far as he did. We didn't encounter anything like the ice that almost killed him, either. Didn't get to attach our ship to a massive iceberg for towing. Like Kane, however, we did enjoy meeting some fun-loving Inuit. If you've got three minutes and forty seconds, check it out!

Ken McGoogan
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Slouching towards a cyber-presence. . .

I have been remiss. I have neglected to post links.
And links, I am told, are the very stuff of a cyber-presence.

So here's me at a Polar Bear Swim. . .

Here's me rambling around Scotland. . .
which adventure contributed to a book (How the Scots Invented Canada).

And here's me SIMULTANEOUSLY in the Boston Globe and the High Arctic.
If you poke around, you might turn up a video called Frozen In Time. I'm wearing what Sheena calls my Junior Glasses, after Junior Soprano, but they've since been retired.
Ken McGoogan
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Yo, Peter C. Newman . . .

Yo, Peter, the cheque is in the mail. But seriously, thanks for the hit in today's Globe and Mail. And for those who missed it, voila:

"For a change of pace and mood, I've been devouring Ken McGoogan's magnificent Race to the Polar Sea, published last year and arguably the most evocative of his four volumes on vintage Arctic exploration. One of Sir John Franklin's would-be rescuers, Elisha Kent Kane, sought an open sea at the top of the world and found instead upraised tables of ice 14 feet thick. The most literate of the northern adventurers, Kane left an impressive legacy that McGoogan, who sailed the same waters - now ice-free - explains, expands and makes relevant. This is a memorable book about an unforgettable odyssey."
Ken McGoogan
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John Geiger makes three . . .

This revised line-up just in: On Feb. 17 at Commensal Restaurant, Ken will "read" along with Andrew Pyper and -- wait for it -- John Geiger. John has just published The Third Man Factor: The Secret to Survival in Extreme Environments, which has been drawing raves and has been picked up in 10 countries. Possibly because, on the back jacket, Ken calls it "a prodigious synthesis -- elegant, entertaining, and important." C'mon, it's POSSIBLE, surely?
Ken McGoogan
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Ken Turns Up at the Centre of the Universe

Three events loom in downtown Toronto.
They're billed as readings, but let's face it, I do more talking than reading.
And wouldn't have it any other way.

The KAMA Reading Series, signature event for World Literacy of Canada, finds me "performing" with Joseph Boyden, Mary Lou Finlay and Dan Hill. The event happens at McKinsey & Company on Charles Street West, and launches a spectacular five-evening reading series that has, alas, already sold out (

Commensal Restaurant hosts a popular literary series (it merely threatens to sell out) at 665 Bay Street. Starting around 7 pm, I'll do a turn with Andrew Pyper (The Killing Circle) and Sally Armstrong (Bitter Roots, Tender Shoots). The trick is to come for dinner and stay for the festivities, which include door prizes. Advance tickets are at Commensal Vegetarian Restaurant and Ryerson University Bookstore. Also 905-271-9917. (

The Toronto Reference Library celebrates Freedom to Read Week with an extravaganza called Closer to the Land: Freedom of Expression and the Environment. At this event, which I'm warned is going to television, I'll take the stage with Trevor Herriot (Grass, Sky, Song, Promise and Peril), Taras Grescoe (Bottom Feeder), musician Sarah Harmer (I'm a Mountain) and host Matt Galloway of CBC Radio One. Advance tickets are at Book City and all proceeds got to PEN Canada.
Ken McGoogan
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Robbie Burns at Port Credit

Ken McGoogan
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Polar Bear Swim for Robbie Burns

On January 24, Adventure Canada will hold a Polar Bear Swim in Port Credit,
Ontario, to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the birth of Robbie Burns (Jan. 25, 1759). From 1 p.m. onwards, Ken will be there, along with Doug Gibson, Graeme Gibson and Margaret Atwood, dispensing drams to those in need. The anticipation alone has inspired him to poetry . . .

Robbie Burns at Port Credit

Robbie Burns was brave and bold.
He did not shrink from getting cold.

To mark his birthday, Robbie said it,
He’d take a plunge in Old Port Credit.

When mortals, trembling, said, “Let’s scram!”
Our Rabbie called for one more dram.

Then in he dove, the people swear,
And swam off like a polar bear.

No icy swim, though sages dread it,
Could keep Our Rab from Old Port Credit.
Ken McGoogan
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My letter to Michael Ignatieff

Eh, voila: me writing to Michael Ignatieff.

Hi, Michael.

Suggestions for the economy:

How about some infrastructure spending that will put money into the hands of Canadians who will spend it, while paying dividends across the country, and especially in Quebec?

I recommend increasing support to artists.

1. Change income tax provisions to exempt royalty income (to a fixed limit of, say, $20,000). This puts money in the hands of those who don’t have a lot of it, which means it gets spent right away. Model the exemption on the Quebec example – a strategy that makes Quebecers feel good, because once again they are showing the ROC how things should be done.

2. Increase the overall budget of the Canada Council. Again, put more money in the hands of those who need it and so immediately spend it. This also clearly differentiates the Liberals from the Harperites.

3. Within the monies flowing through Heritage to the Council, target a specific amount to increase the Public Lending Right program (, which has been losing ground steadily since Marcel Masse made it a reality almost 25 years ago. Again, here you get a high-profile return, both economically and politically, for a relatively small expenditure. Full disclosure: I am currently serving as vice-chairman of the PLR Commission. Also true: I am doing so because I believe the PLR is important.

Sincere best wishes,

Ken McGoogan


Ken McGoogan
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Creative Non-Fiction at University of Toronto

In other news, I'm leading an advanced
workshop in Creative Non-Fiction at U of T
starting in February. This means dealing mainly
with YOUR work-in-progress, though I do tend to have
an awful lot to say about craft. Details are at . . .
Ken McGoogan
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Chasing Kane to the High Arctic

So, two clips have turned up in Cyberspace
as a result of our most recent Arctic voyage with Adventure Canada.
The first is more tell than show, and vice versa, but hey,
together they contribute to the requisite fifteen minutes of fame . . .

one is at,

the other at . . .

Ken McGoogan
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Before turning mainly to books about arctic exploration and Canadian history, Ken McGoogan worked for two decades as a journalist at major dailies in Toronto, Calgary, and Montreal. He teaches creative nonfiction writing through the University of Toronto and in the MFA program at King’s College in Halifax. Ken served as chair of the Public Lending Right Commission, has written recently for Canada’s History, Canadian Geographic, and Maclean’s, and sails with Adventure Canada as a resource historian. Based in Toronto, he has given talks and presentations across Canada, from Dawson City to Dartmouth, and in places as different as Edinburgh, Melbourne, and Hobart.