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An Open Letter to Explorer John Rae On His Birthday

Dear Dr. Rae:

I write from the future to wish you Happy Birthday on the 203rd anniversary of your birth. What to report from 2016? Well, searchers have recently found the two lost ships of Sir John Franklin, Erebus and Terror. This has sparked renewed interest in the fate of the 1845 Franklin expedition.

On this subject, slowly we are winning the war to vindicate you and your Inuit informants, so shamefully slandered by Charles Dickens in your own time. I put that story on the record in Fatal Passage and Lady Franklin’s Revenge, and elaborated in an introduction to The Arctic Journals of John Rae and a foreword to a new edition of John Rae’s Arctic Correspondence. I will publish another Arctic book in 2017.

In Orkney, a new statue of you has been erected on Stromness Pier, with an inscription recognizing that you discovered (in the formulation of historian Tom Muir) “the final link in the first navigable Northwest Passage.” Also in Orkney, after a long struggle, the John Rae Society has gained control of your birthplace, the Hall of Clestrain, and has begun work on restoring it and transforming it into a visitor centre.

I will end these words of congratulation (203 years and counting!) with a few words (edited for space) from my foreword to your Arctic correspondence: 

The polemical introduction to Arctic Correspondence, which runs almost 100 pages, illustrates the way the British establishment framed, controlled, and projected an “authorized history” of Arctic exploration. Its main author was Richard Julius Cyriax, an English medical doctor and fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, who rejected the fact that some of the final survivors of the Franklin expedition had been driven by starvation to cannibalism. He argues that “the religion, courage, discipline, and sense of duty of Franklin’s men would have prevented anything whatever of the kind described by the [Inuit].”
anticipated, many investigators have since added detail and nuance to Rae’s original findings. Those who came after McClintock but before Cyriax include Charles Francis Hall, Frederick Schwatka, and Knud Rasmussen. Those who came after Cyriax include David Woodman, Owen Beattie, Margaret Bertulli, and Anne Keenleyside. Woodman, author of Unravelling the Franklin Mystery, correctly wrote of McClintock that “the vague stories he collected . . . added detail to Rae’s account, but presented little that was new.” The list of those who have clarified the Fate of Franklin continues to grow. But as I wrote in Fatal Passage, “John Rae, not Leopold McClintock, deserves to be commemorated at Westminster Abbey as the discoverer of the fate of Franklin. Yet even that would right only half the historical wrong.”
Ken McGoogan
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Mountains and icebergs (exhibition) coming to downtown Toronto

Mountains and Icebergs, a solo exhibition of colorful acrylic paintings by Sheena Fraser McGoogan, will run from Nov. 14 to 28 at Art Square Gallery and Cafe in downtown Toronto. Sheena has traveled extensively in the Arctic, madly shooting photos for yours truly (even though she is first and foremost a painter. Besides the Arctic, she has also explored the Canadian Rockies and the Scottish Highlands, and has produced these paintings in response. The grand opening will be Thursday, Nov. 17, from 6 to 9 p.m., when the artist will be in attendance. Address: 334 Dundas Street West, opposite the Art Gallery of Ontario. Be there or . . . actually, be there and be Art Square.

Ken McGoogan
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John Rae's childhood home set to become memorial visitor centre

The John Rae Society has finally purchased the Hall of Clestrain, the childhood home of explorer John Rae. The Society, created three years ago to restore the 18th century building, acquires entry to the Hall and surrounding lands as of Sept. 30 -- which would have been Rae's 203rd birthday.
The Society put down a deposit and has five years, interest free, to raise the rest of the money. It aims to make the home a fitting monument to Rae's feats of exploration in Canada. Andrew Appleby, society president, said that visitor facilities and interpretation will pay tribute not just to Rae, but also to the Inuit and First Nations who assisted him in his explorations. The Inuit, especially, "will be big on our priorities of interpretation."
In 1854, when Rae discovered the location of the final link in what would prove to be the first navigable Northwest Passage, he was accompanied by his two hardiest men -- the Inuk William Ouligbuck Jr. and the Ojibway Thomas Mistegan.
The Hall of Clestrain was built in 1769 by businessman Patrick Honeyman after he married. He and his wife travelled from the Orkney island of Graemsay to Edinburgh, where they admired New Town, then under construction. Clestrain is Georgian Edinburgh transplanted to Orkney. Rae was born in the Hall in 1813. The place was occupied continuously until 1952, when a storm ripped off its roof. The temporary roof built then has remained in place ever since. 
The Society is bent on reversing "the ravages of storms and too many decades on this wonderful 18th century architectural gem." As I wrote not long ago: "Because of John Rae, Clestrain is the most important heritage building in Orkney, and one of the most significant in all of Scotland. It will make a spectacular visitor centre. Hats off to the John Rae Society for persevering in making this happen."
Alistair Carmichael, member of Parliament for Orkney, hailed news of the purchase, noting that "the John Rae story is one that is close to the heart of many Orcadians. . . . The Hall of Clestrain is central to that story and it is right that it should be part of any lasting memorial to this great Orcadian and all that he did in his lifetime."
The John Rae Society is raising funds to complete the transformation, and those keen to support the project can do so by clicking here to their website. As Appleby put it, "Any sum, wee or vast, will be so very much appreciated." (Photos courtesy of Colin Bullen.)
Ken McGoogan
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Flashback to when W.P. Kinsella worked magic with Shoeless Joe

The passing of author Bill Kinsella, who died peacefully at 12:05 pm today, swept me back twenty years. I was working as books editor at the Calgary Herald, and wrote a yarn focusing on Kinsella's breakthrough moment. Others will write the obituaries and fill in the blanks. This is a personal hit that ran Oct. 5, 1996 under the headline Shoeless Joe gave Kinsella his freedom. The story began as follows. . . .

The breakout book. 
That's what most writers are chasing. 
If the first challenge is to get a book published -- no easy task -- the second is greater still: to publish that elusive breakout book. 
That's the one that changes a writer's life. That enables him to quit teaching English at the University of Calgary, for example, and devote himself to writing full-time. 
Most authors never write a breakout book. But W.P. (Bill) Kinsella published one in 1982: Shoeless Joe. The novel won the prestigious Houghton-Mifflin Award in the U.S., and then became the hit movie Field of Dreams
"It enabled me to stop working for anyone else," Kinsella said recently. "Since then, all I've done is write." Oops, not completely true: he did teach one semester at the University of Victoria. But let's face it: that was mainly to hang out with friends like writer-professor W.D. Valgardson. 
Kinsella was in Calgary to promote If Wishes Were Horses, his 22nd book. It's a wacky fantasy that mixes a bit of baseball with a lot of magic and brings back the heroes of both Shoeless Joe and The Iowa Baseball Confederacy. 
As such, it encourages a retrospective approach. Let's take it from the top. Born in Edmonton in 1935, Kinsella grew up on a bush-farm about 100 kilometres west of the Alberta capital. He didn't attend school until he was 10. But he caught up. In 1954, he graduated from an Edmonton high school, then did "all sorts of vile things." He sold real estate and life insurWance and advertising for the yellow pages, managed a retail credit agency, drove a taxi and, after moving in 1967 to Victoria, bought and ran a pizzeria. 
Kinsella had been writing all along, but it wasn't until the mid-seventies, after he'd picked up a degree in creative writing from the University of Victoria, that he started selling his stories regularly. 
In 1975, he published his first book of "Indian stories," focusing on fictional Indians living in Hobbema, Alta. Within four years, it had sold 10,000 copies -- and now it's passed the 50,000 mark. It has also been made into a movie. 
Even so, no breakout. Kinsella landed a job at the University of Calgary and began earning his living by teaching English. In 1980, he published a third book of stories: Shoeless Joe Jackson Comes To Iowa. The title story caught the eye of an editor in Boston, who encouraged Kinsella to turn it into a novel. 
"About a third of the way through the book," Kinsella says now, "I realized something special was happening. I wasn't surprised by anything that happened after that." 
What made Shoeless Joe the breakout it became? Kinsella doesn't hesitate: "Word of mouth." Originally, the publisher planned to print 10,000 copies in hardcover. The sales representatives loved the book, however, and talked the publisher into printing 25,000. 
Word of mouth led to the movie, and drove the mass-market edition, and sales now are "at least half a million," Kinsella says, "probably more." The novel "opened the door of international literature to me," Kinsella says. "A lot more people bought my books. My backlist sales (previous books) went up. I started doing a lot more public appearances." 
In Canada, he notes, universities will often pay an author as little as $200 to do a reading. American colleges and universities, by comparison, offer $2,000 or $3,000 -- "and I began getting quite a few of those." 
Kinsella also kept writing steadily. His 22 books (and counting) include seven Hobbema books, seven baseball books (including the new one), and eight books that fit neither category. 
Among his own works, "I like Red Wolf, Red Wolf." That book of stories is "my favorite of everything I've written. There are just some really good stories in there." 

Ken McGoogan
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John Rae sails on through confusion & nay-saying

So here we are at Beechey Island, wending our way towards Victory Point, Rae Strait, and Gjoa Haven. We’re on the Ocean Endeavour, we’re sailing with Adventure Canada, and when I turn to Wikipedia, I discover a bit of confusion in the entry on explorer John Rae. I read that “Ken McGoogan has claimed that Rae here effectively discovered the final link in the [first navigable] Northwest Passage,” although another Arctic historian (desperate to be recognized by name) “refuted that claim, citing the uncharted 240 km between [James Clark] Ross’s discoveries and Bellot Strait.”
Sorry, Wikipedia, but I demolished this purported refutation in a Polar Record rejoinder entitled “Defenders of Arctic orthodoxy turn their backs on Sir John Franklin.” Those who have done their homework know that I am no great admirer of Franklin. But I do acknowledge that in 1846, the good Sir John sailed south from Lancaster Sound to the northwest corner of King William Island. He established that channel as navigable to that location. Of that achievement, his men left tangible proof. Who in their right mind cares about an uncharted stretch of coastline that Franklin and his men sailed past? Talk about irrelevant.
In 1854, eight years after Franklin got trapped in the ice off King William Island, Rae gleaned from Inuit hunters what Sir John had accomplished. On that same expedition, Rae completed the work of Franklin. He recognized the final link in the Passage, the one Roald Amundsen would later use, and brought that news home. He discovered the short waterway, Rae Strait, that links the north-south channel established by Franklin and James Clark Ross with the coastal channel previously determined by Thomas Simpson and Peter Warren Dease of the Hudson’s Bay Company.
Rae built a cairn to mark his discovery of Rae Strait. – a cairn that has no place in the orthodox, Royal Navy version of exploration history, but that shines bright in the 21st-century rendition that recognizes the contribution of First Peoples. In 1999, with two fellow adventurers, I placed a plaque beside the remains of that cairn -- a homage to Rae and his companions, an Inuk and an Ojibway. Those who wish to know more should go here.
(Photo by Ginette Vachon.)
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.