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Originally published Saturday, March 20, 2010 at 7:04 PM

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Book review

'The Man Who Ate His Boots': The Northwest Passage — it had to be there

"The Man Who Ate His Boots" traces the numerous ill-fated attempts by British explorers to discover a Northwest Passage. Author Anthony Brandt discusses his book at 7 p.m. Monday at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture on the University of Washington campus.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Anthony Brandt

The author of "The Man Who Ate His Boots" will discuss his book at 7 p.m. Monday at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture on the University of Washington campus; free (206-543-7907 or www.washington.edu/burkemuseum). Brandt will also read at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park; free (206-366-3333 or www.thirdplacebooks.com).

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'The Man Who Ate His Boots: The Tragic History of the Search for the Northwest Passage'

by Anthony Brandt

Knopf, 448 pp., $28.95

The motives of British explorers searching for the Northwest Passage in the 19th century could be summed up by adapting the remark supposedly made by George Mallory about climbing Mount Everest: "Because we were sure it was there." Practicality was of little consideration; exploration for its own sake was the goal.

That was just as well, for, as Anthony Brandt explains in "The Man Who Ate His Boots," even then it was recognized that any such passage would be of little practical use. Now we know there are several "passages," or sea routes, through the islands of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. In the 19th century they were impossibly plugged up with ice, but now, "thanks to global warming," the steady melting of the ice has opened the waters more and more to navigation, and the land to international competition for natural resources.

Not that commercial considerations were completely ignored. John Barrow, a longtime high official in the British Admiralty, typified those who were obsessed with the Passage. He also believed, despite plentiful evidence to the contrary, that the polar sea was open year-round, encircled only by a tonsure of ice that could be broken through to attain passage across the top of the world to the other side — a shortcut to trade with the Far East, in other words.

Brandt, an author and journalist, covers the search for the Passage from the 16th and 17th centuries forward, but concentrates on the 19th, when it was in fullest vigor. He digs deep into the records to show that the "spirit of the times was romantic, expansionist, triumphalist." Theirs was, Brandt maintains, not an imperialist enterprise, but an imperialist attitude: Only Britain could do it; only Britain should do it. They thought the Passage had to be there.

Tension between that nobility (and chauvinism) and the folly of the enterprise makes the story rich. John Ross' expedition in the early 1830s, for instance, lasted four years and was probably the worst ordeal — that is, the worst in which members survived to tell the tale — in all of Arctic exploration.

Ross' adventurers met with brutally arduous work and painful privation, with ice 10 feet thick and snow 13 feet deep on top of it. In the summer, clouds of mosquitoes were so thick that one sufferer measured them in bushels. In the winter, temperatures plunged to more than 50 below zero Fahrenheit.

But the central figure in the story of these iron men in wooden ships is John Franklin, "the man who ate his boots" on one of his three journeys. Its high point is his last, fatal one, which he embarked upon at age 59.

"Kind, avuncular, overweight and too old to be leading an expedition into the Arctic," Franklin and 128 officers and crewmen set out in two steamships on July 12, 1845. Aside from two whaling ships a couple of months later, no one, except possibly some Inuit, ever saw them again.

Their unknown fate caused a stir in Western countries for years. Nearly 30 international searches were launched, including American, French and Russian. The Admiralty, prodded by Franklin's indefatigable wife, Jane, kept up its search for nine years.

In the course of those attempts and later investigations it was discovered that the expedition's icebound ships had been abandoned in desperation and the entire crew perished from hypothermia, tuberculosis, lead poisoning, scurvy and starvation — but not before resorting to cannibalism. The Passage — or a passage — was finally found by Robert McClure during his search for Franklin in 1853.

The author concludes that Franklin's expedition was a "long and painful quest for a largely useless geographical clarity" and a "spectacular piece of folly." The reader could be excused for applying that assessment — the daring and courage aside — to other campaigns described in his fascinating, at times thrilling, narrative.

Roger K. Miller, a former newspaper book-review editor, is a novelist and freelance writer and editor.

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