Monday, April 27, 2009

Weird and Tragic Shores

The Story of Charles Francis Hall, Explorer

Great title for a fabulous book about a self-made man from Cincinnati who becomes obsessed with the Arctic. In 1860 he mounts a one-man expedition and heads north by bumming a ride on a whaler.

He spends eight years living among the Inuit, first on southern Baffin Island, where he is astonished by tales of Frobisher's visits three centuries before, then on the Arctic mainland where he is thrilled by stories that a few men from Franklin's lost expedition may have survived long after the rest had perished.

Hall returns to the US something of a celebrity, meeting President Grant and Lady Franklin. He writes a book, Life with the Esquimaux, and mounts a new expedition, this time with government backing.

It is a bitter disaster. He dies claiming he's been poisoned, and half the company is marooned on an ice floe for over six months.

This book is a rarity in that it contains much original research without sacrificing readability. It is topped off by the author's visit in 1968 to Greenland, where he exhumes Hall's body. Analysis of hair and fingernail clippings reveal that Hall had ingested toxic amounts of arsenic. Loomis carefully works out the ramifications of this discovery.

Ebierbing and Tookoolito

As remarkable as Hall's story is, equally affecting is that of Ebierbing and Tookoolito, an Inuit couple he met on Baffin Island. They were to remain his companions for the rest of his life. They accompanied him to the US, then back to the Arctic on his second and third expeditions. It was Ebierbing's skills as a hunter that enabled 19 people to survive for the six months they spent on the ice floe drifting south.

Their story is worthy of its own book.