Book Review:

The Navigator of New York

Cook and Peary as central figures in a new novel

by Wayne Johnston

hb, 469 p. NY: Doubleday & Co.

ISBN 0385507674

Canadian author Wayne Johnson has written a new novel which has part of its setting in the bustling streets of late 19th century New York to the farthest Arctic dominions of his native country. The author of the highly-acclaimed “The Colony of Unrequited Dreams” has now completed an epic story of “one man’s quest for the secret of his origins” as a theme that includes Frederick Albert Cook as the central figure in his novel.

As a young child in St. John’s, Devlin Stead and his mother, Amelia, are suddenly abandoned by his father, Dr. Francis Stead, who flees north to practice medicine among the Eskimos. Distraught by his absence, Amelia throws herself into the icy ocean from Signal Hill. Rather than return home, his father joins the American Lieutenant Peary on one of his attempts to reach the North Pole, but wanders off from camp one night and is never seen again. Now orphaned, Devlin grows up an outcast and a loner, attended to by his devoted Aunt Daphne and his taciturn physician uncle.

Here author Johnston takes wide liberties of any novelist writing about real people. Cook and Peary stories have over the years been flushed out by biographers and writers of the history in which they participated and the newspapers which covered every aspect of their lives. We can only speculate how much research he did on his life personalities woven in the book.

While all explorers had their failings, Peary and Henson left a Polar progeny. Indeed they are celebrated by those who have now chosen the advocacy role of the supposed “dual discoverers,” and they have status among the Smith Sound Inuit. With all his detractors over most of a century however, no one has ever claimed that Cook fathered any children outside of his two marriages.

It is ironic, then, for Cook to be cast in this novel as the father of the book’s protagonist, young Devlin, who announces this fact in a series of letters, acknowledging a brief affair with his mother Amelia between polar expeditions. The novel’s Cook then invites the boy to be his assistant and come with him to Greenland to rescue the missing Peary, a twist on the 1901 Erik expedition.

And then one day his uncle summons Devlin to his office and hands him an extraordinary letter from the explorer, Dr. Frederick Cook-- the first of several that willl change everything Devlin thought he knew about himself. He will sail to New York to become Dr. Cook’s protégé, to be introduced into society, and eventually to accompany him on his race to reach the Pole before his arch-rival Peary. It is in Manhattan that Devlin falls in love with a young woman with an astonishing family connection to Amelia.

Inevitably, initial reviews of the book would offer an opportunity for uniformed opinion on the real Cook. While one can disagree with reviewer Thomas Mallon on his estimate of The Navigator of New York in the current Atlantic Monthly, there is some currency to question his flip and rather stupid characterization of the true historical figure which is woven into the book.

We can question how much Mallon knows about explorer Frederick A. Cook, the center of what may have been the greatest geographical controversy in the 20th century.

Far from being “polar exploration’s Rosie Ruiz, a man who faked his way to the finish line,” Cook today is accorded the unqualified distinction as the first at the geographical North Pole by a litany of credentialed and respected experts.

The book’s Devlin Stead goes with Cook on his 1907-09 expedition, even to the Pole, and winters at Cape Sparbo with him. The novel has him replacing Franke as Cook’s assistant, and has Ahwelah and Etukishuk traveling with them on the return journey to Upernavik in Greenland (untrue) and curiously attaining the Pole on April 22, by allowing “Devlin” to reach the goal first (“I could not believe that Dr. Cook had bestowed on me the honor of preceding him and others to the Pole,” he writes).

Thankfully, Johnson has an “Author’s Note” that declares that “This is a work of fiction. At times, it places real people in imaginary space and time. At others, imaginary people in real space and time. While it draws from the historical record, its purpose is not to answer historical questions or settle historical controversies.”

The review says of The Navigator of New York: “Wayne Johnston’s descriptions of place -- whether of the frozen Arctic wastes or the city of New York, bursting with energy of a metropolis about to become the capital city of the globe--evoke an extraordinary physicality and conviction. A remarkable achievement that seamlessly weaves fact and fabrication, it continues the masterful reinvention of the historical novel Wayne Johnston began with his lavishly praised The Colony of Unrequited Dreams.”

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Copyright 2005 - The Frederick A. Cook Society