Reviewed by Aislinn Iona Cottell
The phrase ‘dead reckoning’ invokes a sense of doom while one awaits a horrible fate. In fact, the phrase refers to a navigational technique used by explorers while voyaging. Dead reckoning allows us to remember where we have been, and then to decide where to go. It’s how European explorers first charted their way through the treacherous waters of Northern Canada in search of a safe trade route between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans: the infamous Northwest Passage.
Dead Reckoning is Montreal author Ken McGoogan’s fifth work on Arctic exploration. The last four have been bestsellers, garnering McGoogan eight awards including the Pierre Berton Award for Histor, and the Writers’ Trust of Canada Biography Prize. With this installment, McGoogan ambitiously challenges the ‘official’ British narrative—specifically, John Franklin’s claim to discovery of the Northwest Passage. He also overturns the traditional Euro-centric exclusion of Indigenous explorers Thanadelthur, Akaitcho, Tattannoeuck, Ouligbuck, and many others who played crucial roles in the “untold story” of the Passage.
McGoogan’s tone is conversational, as he says, “more literary than academic, more narrative than analytical.” He brings to life figures like 17-year-old Thanadelthur, whose “perpetual talking” forged crucial peace treaties and allowed Europeans to venture North. It may be less impartial but McGoogan’s informality makes for an easier and far more entertaining read that still commands authority. McGoogan’s style contradicts the stereotype of heavy or ‘dry’ historical works.
The book is interspersed with historical illustrations of key figures and locations, which break up the text nicely. Several maps are also provided, however, for those unfamiliar with the geography of Northern Canada, expedition routes remain difficult to follow. As well, though roughly chronological, some ‘bouncing around’ in the narrative obscures the timing of certain events. The overall clarity could have benefited from more comprehensive maps, as well as an abbreviated timeline to which readers could refer.
In his prologue, McGoogan recounts his research trips to the Arctic, as well as Scotland, England, Tasmania, Norway, and the U.S. Although any first-hand sources are long since gone, McGoogan has drawn upon local knowledge held by individuals such as Inuk historian Louie Kamookak, Inuit politician Tagak Curely, and lawyer-activist Aaju Peter, as well as many texts and historical documents.
Many have praised McGoogan for writing this inclusive, long-overdue history. Some, however, criticize his upholding of another white European in its spotlight: instead of Franklin, McGoogan purports Scotsman John Rae to be rightful discoverer of the Passage.
“McGoogan goes beyond any other previous writer in highlighting [Indigenous people]’s deeds,” writes Janice Cavell, research professor at Carleton University’s Department of History, in her Globe and Mail review, “but a book without a supposedly flawless white hero at its heart would be even better.”
Despite this, McGoogan has achieved an impressive feat. For those already familiar with the Arctic, he offers a compendium of information often skimmed in academia tomes to date. For readers with no background knowledge at all, Dead Reckoning is a fascinating dip into a tale fraught with suspense and intrigue. Historically, the book is an important, if imperfect, step toward reclaiming Canada’s colonial narrative; it’s a story that tells Canada who it has been, so it might discover who it is, and how better to chart a path into the future?