Review of Polar Literature

Book Review:

A Human History of the Arctic World

by Robert McGhee

New York: Oxford University Press, 2005, 296 p.

ISBN 0195183681

Communicating the wonders of the Arctic and its long neglected human side in a new history

Robert McGhee is not just another writer-author who dabbles in Arctic topics. He may be Canada's leading archeologist of the Far North, the Curator of Arctic Archeology at the Canadian Museum of Civilization. An archeologist who has conducted over thirty years of research on the ancient peoples of the Arctic, he was awarded the 2000 Massey Medal of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, Canada's highest award for excellence in the geographical sciences.

The Last Imaginary Place has drawn significant praise from some of the top critics of the Arctic scene in both Canada and the United States. "McGhee makes us care about this precious part of the world by putting color, flesh, diversity, and particularity back into a complex history and multifaceted human geography that has often been homogenized and generalized, removed from time and objectified. This is a beautiful book and a fine testimony to McGhee?s expert and long-standing love of the Arctic." says Sherrill Grace, Professor of English at the University of British Columbia, and author of Canada and the Idea of North.

The author even offers his opinion of the two American explorers who brought the imaginary top of the globe to the attention of the world in 1909, and who subsequently consumed much of the discussion about the Arctic. Cook and Peary earn biting commentary in four pages (see box) in this human history of the region. Books says: "in this fascinating volume, renowned archeologist Robert McGhee lifts the veil to reveal the true Arctic. Combining anthropology, history, and personal memoir, this book dispels romanticized notions of the Arctic as a world apart, exotic and isolated, revealing a land far more fascinating than we had imagined. McGhee paints a vivid portrait of the movement of Viking farmers across the North Atlantic islands, and of the long and arduous searches for sea-passages to Asia. We meet the fur traders who pioneered European expansion across the northern forests of Canada and Siberia, the whalers and ivory-hunters who ravaged northern seas, and patriotic explorers racing to reach the North Pole." Most important, McGhee offers far more coverage of the native peoples of the Arctic, societies that other histories usually neglect. We discover how northerners have learned to exploit a rich "hunter's world" where game is, contrary to our expectations, far easier to find than in more temperate lands. McGhee takes us to a thousand-year-old Inuit campsite perfectly preserved in the Arctic cold, follows the entrepreneurial Inuit as they cross the Arctic in search of metal, and reveals the dangers that native people face today from industrial pollution and global warming.

"Flavored by McGhee?s personal reflections based on thirty years of work and travel in the region, here is a wide ranging, enlightening look at one of the most culturally rich and fascinating areas of the world."

"This is an important book by a prominent researcher and highly accomplished author who presents his global arctic view to readers here for the first time." offers William Fitzhuah, Director, Arctic Studies Center, Smithsonian Institution.

"The Last Imaginary Place is very well written and built on a lifetime outstanding research. It succeeds in communicating some of the wonders of the Arctic and its extraordinary human history, while making the choices and challenges people have faced familiar and recognizable," declares Susan Kaplan, Director, Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum & Arctic Studies Center at Bowdoin College.

McGhee discusses the race to the pole: "The stage was now set for the race to the pole by the "American route," pioneered by Kane and Hall and Greely, which by the turn of the twentieth century was firmly in the grip of Robert E. Peary. Peary was an engineer, an American naval officer with no maritime experience and a man driven by a consuming need for recognition and fame. Writing to his mother in 1880, Peary had stated "I don't want to live and die without accomplishing anything or without being known beyond a narrow circle of friends. I would like to acquire a name which would be an open sesame to circles of culture and refinement anywhere, a name which would make my mother proud, and which would make me feel that I was the peer of anyone I might meet."

Through a series of near-disastrous expeditions in - Greenland, Peary obsessively accumulated the admiration and financial support of the men whose counterparts a half century later would be known as the American "military-industrial complex." He tirelessly depicted the quest for the Pole as a patriotic endeavor that could be attained only through the right combination of military- like organization and that peculiarly American characteristic known as "dash." The Inughuit sled-drivers and their seamstress wives, on whom Peary depended for transport and survival, were portrayed as cogs in the great machine that he was assembling to roll inexorably to the Pole. They in turn gave Peary a name that translates as "the one who is feared."

McGhee on Cook: "the most perceptive as well as the most vilified of Polar explorers"

Cook's story told of a much smaller and simpler expedition, financed as far as the Inughuit homeland by an American sportsman. Here Cook, who had previously served as doctor to one of Peary's Greenland expeditions and had also traveled to Antarctica, hired Inuit families and their dog-teams. The group hunted its way across the interior of Ellesmere Island so that the supplies that they carried could be used on the polar ice. From the northern tip of Axel Heiberg Island Cook set out with two Inuit companions and two sleds pulled by twenty-six dogs. The 900 kilometers to the Pole was covered in five weeks, and the group barely survived the southward retreat when food ran out and leads of open water barred their progress.

The ice drifted westward and away from the caches of food they had left ashore for their return, and they eventually landed among the barren islands to the west of Alex Heiberg, where they made their way southward through the melting ice to Devon Island. Having exhausted their ammunition and abandoned their dogs and sleds, they lived by Inuit ingenuity and passed the winter in a refurbished winter house that had been built centuries before by prehistoric Inuit on the coast of Jones Sound.

The following spring they walked back to Greenland where the Inuit were welcomed with joy by families who had assumed them to be dead. Cook's report that he had reached the Pole the previous year reached the world only a few weeks before Peary returned with his more recent claim. Peary was appalled by the news, and immediately set out on a life-long campaign to discredit Cook and everything that he had claimed to accomplish. A vicious propaganda campaign financed by the National Geographic Society and Peary's other wealthy backers successfully destroyed Cook's claim as well as his life. Yet no amount of money and influence was able to bury the questions surrounding Peary's own claim to have reached the Pole in the spring of 1909.

In his recent exhaustive book Cook and Peary: The Polar Controversy Resolved, Robert M. Bryce concludes that neither explorer is likely to - have attained the goal that he claimed. I am not convinced that Bryce is right. It is clear that Peary could not have attained the Pole, and that he was a liar as well as a megalomaniac. Yet when one strips away the false testimony and the biased judgments that emanated from Peary and his supporters, there is no reason to believe that Cook could not have accomplished what he claimed. It is true that Cook was no navigator and may not have been able to precisely identify the location of the Pole, but he certainly could have found his way to the general vicinity. His small and lightly supplied expedition may have seemed impossible in the early twentieth century, but similar trips have since been achieved by others with fewer resources. In 1996 the Canadian-Russian team of Hans Webber and Mikhael Malakhov traveled from Ellesmere Island to the Pole and back, entirely unsupported and hauling all of their equipment and supplies on light toboggans, are now mounted on almost an annual basis.

Frederick Cook remains one of the most perceptive as well as the most vilified of Polar explorers. In the posthumously published book, Return From the Pole, he wrote of his discovery that "the greatest mystery - the greatest unknown, is not that beyond the frontiers of knowledge but that unknown capacity in the spirit within the inner man of self.... Therein is the greatest field for exploration. To have suffered the tortures and to have become resigned to the aspects of death as we did--to learn this is experience which no gold can buy. The shadow of death had given new horizons, new frontiers to life." Cook had made a discovery that no amount of humiliation could take from him, and one that only the most fortunate and observant of Arctic explorers ever learned.

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Copyright 2005 - The Frederick A. Cook Society