Erasmus Darwin Wells has a history of failure. At 40, he has no wife, no children, no close friends, and his life's work as a scholar-naturalist has come to almost nothing. Yet, as Andrea Barrett's fascinating new adventure novel demonstrates, it's never too late for a second chance.
Set in the mid-19th-century, The Voyage of the Narwhal follows Wells and the crew as they set sail for the Arctic, hoping to find the missing explorer Sir John Franklin and perhaps get a glimpse of an open polar sea. As she did in the National Book Award-winning Ship Fever, Barrett weaves fact and fiction seamlessly, incorporating historical figures such as Sir Franklin, Thoreau, and Darwin into the lives of her fictional characters. The voyage starts off well, and an early encounter with a tribe of Greenland Esquimaux suggests that Franklin and his men had, in fact, traveled the same path. Driven on by the obsessive ambition of their commander, Zeke, however, the crew soon find themselves trapped in the ice, forced to endure an impossibly long, cruel winter off the coast of Greenland. The true nature of each man begins to emerge as they struggle to survive.
For Wells, it is a life-changing experience. In this unlikely setting, the cautious and fearful scientist, who had wrapped himself in a cloud to avoid the pain of early disappointments, reawakens to the world. He finds his first true friend in a fellow naturalist on the crew, and remarks in his journal that "they talk about what we've seen how nature, in this place and season, is reduced to her bones . . . It is so, so beautiful here, despite the danger, despite the discomfort; I would never have chosen to winter here yet it's as if I was waiting my whole life to see this." Indeed, Barrett's extraordinarily detailed and poetic descriptions bring to life the stark and radiant landscape of the Arctic and its romantic appeal for 19th-century explorers. Her exhaustive knowledge of boats and seafaring will also delight maritime fiction fans.
The turning point of the story arrives when Zeke, who has set out alone for one last expedition, fails to return. Summer is nearly over and the crew cannot survive another winter on the Narwhal. Wells must decide what to do. The consequences of his decision to leave Zeke who is also his sister's fiancee drive the rest of the story. He returns to Philadelphia maimed, guilt-ridden, and disconsolate. Yet, with the help of his family and a young friend of his sister's, he slowly recovers, finding, at last, the courage to change his life. During his winter in the Arctic, Wells mulls Thoreau's observation that it is easier to sail many thousand miles through cold and storm and cannibals . . . than it is to explore the private sea, the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean of one's own being. With this remarkable novel, Barrett proves the truth in Thoreau's words.
Beth Duris is a writer for The Nature Conservancy in Arlington, Virginia.