“If I were hauling 600 miles across the Arctic, I’d choose J. for stamina and his uncomplaining nature; A. for her medical skills and ability to play music; N. because he’s optimistic and multilingual; H. for her understanding of the natural world; T. for her scientific mind, though she probably would not hesitate to fry and eat my liver if I died.”
I’ve held on to the entire March 20, 2016 “Voyages” issue of The New York Times Magazine because I can’t bear to part ways with Leanne Shapton’s story within, which includes this smart, hilarious sentence. Although Shapton maintains she is not a reporter, but visual artist, her fixation on “things … pieces of history … objects and the value we place on them” makes her perfect the correspondent for this story on the ongoing mystery of Sir John Franklin’s lost expedition in the Arctic and the dozens of eerie artifacts that remain. So when the Times dispatches Shapton to chronicle the Royal Canadian Geographical Society’s visit to King William Island — the last place Franklin’s men were seen, she makes their absence come alive. She looks at the seaweed-covered rocks and sees “the tops of green haired men, sunk up to the brow line.” She muses intently on the corpse of a lower-ranking officer found wearing a knotted kerchief, who was assumed to be Thomas Armitage. Shapton wonders if the body might have actually belonged to foretop captain Henry Peter Peglar, who was perhaps wearing his friend’s scarf. Traveling in borrowed pants, she writes, “I think about people who don’t die in their own clothes.” And in this feature’s long, standout sentence, Shapton again imagines herself in another’s stead, this time as Franklin, preparing for the journey, selecting suitable companions in the same manner one might select appropriate garments. Her list of worthy shipmates anticipates the expedition with its inherent tediums, liabilities, amusements, beauties, nuisances and the grim way it could (and sometimes did) end.