by Dominique Fortier
translated by Sheila Fischman
Emblem Editions, 2011
Thousands of people came to witness the departure of the Erebus and the Terror from British soil in 1845; Sir John Franklin was hailed as a hero setting off to conquer the Northwest Passage. But what began as a tremendous expedition set against a sea of cheering voices ended as a lone figure struggling in a vacuum of nothingness, hundreds of miles from anything but ice.
In her debut novel, On the Proper Use of Stars, Dominique Fortier traces this transformative voyage through the voice of Franklin’s second in command, Captain Francis Crozier. Though mainly a work of fiction, Fortier offers a portrait of what could have transpired aboard the ill-fated vessel using historical facts and figures and mimicking the writing style of the period.
“Spied yesterday some Esquimaux who have set up their Encampment in proximity to the Terror and the Erebus. They had never seen White Men, and in order to reassure them we had recourse to the Universal Symbol of Good Will, which is a branch of Olive… They are Fierce and made Many Threatening Motions in our direction before at my Suggestion we hoisted the Flag on which appears the Olive Branch and that immediately Pacified them.”
The novel moves chronologically as the expedition pushes further into the unknown. Pages from Crozier’s journal are interspersed with an omniscient account of what is happening back at home in England. These passages use heavy symbolism to foreshadow what will transpire on the ship (Lady Franklin recalls wrapping a Union Jack around her sleeping husband only to have him wake up, spooked by the image). As the ships sink deeper into the ice and the situation becomes more dire, Crozier is held afloat by thoughts of Sophia, back in England…
“Life on board a ship held captive of the ice and the night in the far reaches of the known world is virtually unbearable for two paradoxical reasons: it is a life of utter isolation, and utterly lacking in privacy, two conditions that, while opposite, are equally contrary to human nature… That is why most attempt to escape through dreams or memory.”
To Sheila Fischman’s credit, the book is impossibly well-translated; it is such a smooth read that you would never know it wasn’t originally written in English. The style is thorough and believable (complete with dollops of commas and old-fashioned capitalization), while the characters are vivid and complex. Although the fate of the Franklin expedition has already been written, I found myself wondering if Crozier’s last journal pages would indeed change the outcome of the voyage. On the Proper Use of Stars isn’t a book for history buffs. It’s a book for anybody who likes a good story. And if you like a good translation, even better.
Review by Arielle Aaronson