In Greek mythology, poets describe Erebus, son of Chaos and husband of Night, as "the deepest and darkest depth where death dwells." On July 12, 1845, two ships with a handpicked crew of 135 men set sail from Greenland on an unforgiving path to find the mythical Northwest Passage. One was the HMS Erebus, a vessel doomed by the folly of its name. Its sister ship, the HMS Terror, faced no happier fate. Both names foretold a disastrous end.
This wasn't the first time Sir John Franklin set out to locate the Passage; his obsession with charting a water route between England and Russia through the Arctic Circle had led him on previous voyages. THE BROKEN LANDS tells of this, his last.
In an effort to ensure the success of the mission, Franklin painstakingly enlisted the bravest and the best mariners to serve his expedition. Beyond the ablest seamen, two captains of fine reputation, one excellent surgeon, a couple of navigational experts, and a host of the fittest marines brought their unmatched skills to the undertaking. Meticulously chosen stores of canned goods, preserved meats, flour for baking, and lemon juice for scurvy came aboard alongside medical supplies, repair materials, and books. The most modern equipment, however, did not. Franklin trusted his personal skills to a fatally high degree.
Foolishly optimistic, they embarked on their quest, maneuvering through fields of crushing icebergs or, worse, "shooting stars," large ice spikes loosed from the ocean floor, thrust upward with bullet speed to cripple unsuspecting hulls. Eternally moving, the icy masses changed the seascape daily. Maps and charts drawn from trips before theirs proved to be little more than educated guesses.
The men took every precaution known to them. Their unmatched skills and courage were put to the test. Much to their horror, however, the enormity of the floes was grossly underestimated. One man observed in his journal, "We might with equal chance of success try to sail through the cliffs of Dover as to penetrate such a mass." A spirit of defeat did not exist among this crew, but despite their unquestioned tenacity, in the end it wasn't enough.
Through the years since the terrible loss, tales of haunted ships in the ice have circulated, creating speculation as to the last days before the final man perished. Mysterious lights, faint engine sounds, and food smells from the galley draw men close to the frozen tomb now. Captains of ships that came after the Erebus and the Terror have returned home insane, their crews whispering of phantoms on the wrecks. Irresistibly intrigued by this marine ghost story, British author Robert Edric engaged his imaginative mind. The result is a clever reconstruction of what might have happened.
THE BROKEN LANDS reads like a novel but is based on historical research and garnished with hypothesis. Two maps, one of the Arctic in 1845 and the other as we know it today, assist in navigating through the maze of coves, bays, inlets, and straits. Although it's a story rich in details, Robert Edric proves a patient guide and lends warmth to a crew ultimately frozen for all time.
Reviewed by Kate Ayers on February 23, 2002