Monday, July 12, 2010

You mean... they ate each other up?

I just finished The Man Who Ate His Boots, by Anthony Brandt. I think you should get this now. Right now.  Even if you're not usually into history/nonfiction stuff, this book is the opposite of trying to sail a wooden boat through pack ice. Meaning it is FAST and EASY, even at almost 400 pages.
The man who ate his boots is Sir John Franklin, one of the "Arctic Knights" searching for the Northwest Passage in the 1800's. It's the obsession of one idiot, John Barrow, that sends these men into the ice again and again and again, never learning a fucking thing. They freeze to death because they want to wear their wool clothes, because they don't learn how to build igloos for shelter, because they don't think for one second savage people who have lived in sub-zero temperatures for hundreds of years could possibly teach them, ENGLISHMEN, anything about survival.
And so they die. Horribly.

I first heard about the final expedition, the Franklin Expedition, while watching a NOVA special on mummies. 30 parties went in search of Franklin and his men after they disappeared in 1846, and the first graves they found were of three sailors on Beechy Island. The bodies were preserved by the ice and in the 1980's anthropologist Owen Beattie exhumed (and defrosted--the guys were ice cubes) the remains to figure out why they died. Lead poisoning, from their canned food, had something to do with it. Lead poisoning will kill you, but it will make you crazy first. Beattie's discovery enlightens the terrifying behavior of the other 120-some men. 
They had two ships: The Terror and The Erebus. And they sat, entrenched in ice, for two years. One of the ships was crushed and sank. Franklin died (possibly of a heart attack). The remaining officers and crew abandoned the ships and went in search of food. What did they bring with them, you ask? Oh, not much. Just a fourteen-hundred pound life boat full of arctic necessities, like silk scarves and scented soaps and slippers and, oh yes, a writing desk.
That's what stuck with me. These men were dying, weak with scurvy and hunger and fear, and they decided it would be a good idea to drag a giant desk across the arctic? I remember watching the tape in the dark, my legs shrinking up to my chest as I imagined them saying "Oh yes, well we must bring the writing desk!" like that was normal and smart and not crazy at all. That kind of crazy, when everyone has caught it, when the most idiotic decision seems like a fantastic idea and how logical! that scares the bejezus out of me. That's probably not how that scene played out in real life, but it's how it played out in my head, and I couldn't stop thinking about it.
The men on Beechy Island were the only ones to be buried. Some were found face-down in the snow, fully clothed (why oh why weren't they wearing fur?) and still carrying their papers. The remains of others told a gruesome tale. The men, starving and probably mad, turned to cannibalism. As if this story wasn't scary enough. It's something you don't want to think about for too long, but maybe you can't help it.

It is a fearful thing to imagine what must go through the mind of a man reduced to eating the body of another,  someone he has known personally, has broken ship's biscuit  with... How is it even possible to saw hands off arms, or to  break into a skull for the brains inside? Very few of us have ever been hungry enough to know. (Brandt)

The Franklin Expedition (his third, by the way. He was 59 when he left England forever) makes up only a small part of The Man Who Ate His Boots. It is all fascinating. Brandt is a great writer. You will also never want to make a joke about scurvy again. That shit is nasty. 

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