Fatal Passage: The Untold Story of John Rae, the Arctic Adventurer Who Discovered the Fate of Franklin


328 pages
Contains Photos, Illustrations, Maps, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-00-638659-8
DDC 917.1904'1'092




Reviewed by Kerry Abel

Kerry Abel is a professor of history at Carleton University. She is the author of Drum Songs: Glimpses of Dene History, co-editor of Aboriginal Resource Use in Canada: Historical and Legal Aspects, and co-editor of Northern Visions: New Perspectives on the North in Canadian History.


The phrases “Franklin Expedition” and “Northwest Passage” seem
to have lost none of the fascination they once held for the 19th-century
British. Each generation has found new meaning in ever-changing mental
images of the Arctic, and of the extremes of human glory and tragedy
that have transpired there. In Fatal Passage, Ken McGoogan eulogizes
Hudson’s Bay Company officer John Rae as a hero for our times: the man
who solved both the mystery of the disappearance of the Franklin
expedition and the mystery of the Northwest Passage, and who did it by
listening to the Inuit and respecting their knowledge of Arctic survival

For McGoogan, John Rae is a physical and intellectual superman, and his
four Arctic expeditions are grand adventures in which Rae snowshoes
faster, hunts better, and endures cold more comfortably than any other
human being. Rae’s mapping of the “last uncharted coastline of North
America” is compared favorably to the scientific successes of
Archimedes and Isaac Newton. When Victorians react in horror to Rae’s
report that the Franklin party resorted to cannibalism, the author
dismisses their views as those of misguided racists and villains. The
conflict between Rae and his enemies in the British establishment is
played to the hilt for dramatic effect, but in so doing, the author
downplays the fact that Rae was neither entirely unrewarded for his
efforts nor completely “shamefully wronged by history.”

Those who like their history “straight” will be uneasy with the
invented conversations, purported glimpses into the mind and heart of
the hero, and lack of footnotes. Others will be uncomfortable with the
heavy reliance on John Rae’s own writings or the occasional slips like
the misspelling of Saulteaux, the description of a party traveling
“up” Lake Winnipeg when they are actually headed down, and the
curious use of old names for First Nations (like “Loucheux” for
Gwich’in) when modern equivalents of geographic names are always
provided. Nevertheless, for those armchair Arctic adventurers who remain
fascinated with the debates over who “discovered” what, Fatal
Passage is a readable and engaging work of creative nonfiction.


McGoogan, Ken., “Fatal Passage: The Untold Story of John Rae, the Arctic Adventurer Who Discovered the Fate of Franklin,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed February 21, 2024, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/7160.