Ah, for just one time I would take the Northwest Passage!

Book Review. Matt James’s Northwest Passage.

Of all the tales of exploration, the story of the Northwest Passage has always fascinated me the most. And I am not alone. For centuries, the search for a sea route connecting the Atlantic with the Pacific Ocean via the waterways of the Canadian Arctic was the elusive goal of countless explorers: From John Cabot (1497) and Henry Hudson (1609) to Captain Cook (1776) and George Vancouver (1792). The Victorians were downright thrilled by the imagined landscapes of the Frozen North. A veritable cult of the hero surrounded the British naval officers who took up the Sisyphean challenge of crossing the ice: John Ross (1829-1833), William Edward Parry (1819-1825) and, most famously, the tragic John Franklin (1819-1845?). No expedition succeeded, though, before the coming of the ice breaker – and climate change.

Caspar David Friedrich, The Sea of Ice (1824). Like many of his contemporaries, Friedrich was fascinated by sublime Arctic spectacles and the epic failures of Arctic exploration. Creative Commons.

The epic stories of failure have provided templates for a wealth of wonderful works of world literature: Sten Nadolny’s quiet soul-portrait “The Discovery of Slowness” (Entdeckung der Langsamkeit“, 1987) or Richard Flanagan’s epic intertwined history of “Wanting” (2008), to name but two.

First edition of Wanting, Knopf 2008

If I HAD to pick a favourite book, though, I would probably choose Matt James’s “Northwest Passage” (Groundwood Books, 2013). For this is HISTORY and a FOLK BALLAD turned PICTORIAL ART.

“Northwest Passage” is all in one:

It’s a pictorial tribute to the legendary Canadian folk singer Stan Rogers. An enchanting picture book to immerse yourself in. A journey trailing the footsteps of a voyager who traveled in the footsteps of countless voyagers. And a historical report about the tragic failure of all of these travels.

Northwest Passage Groundwood Books
Cover Page “Northwest Passage” (Groundwood Books, 2013). (C) House of Anansi Press.

Essentially, Matt James has illustrated a cult song by the prematurely deceased Canadian folk singer Stan Rogers (1949-1983). The result is a sort of booklet, both evocative and informative, that you can leaf through while listening to the song.

In his folk ballad, Stan Rogers sang about the centuries-long quest for the Northwest Passage as well as about his own overland journey in the trails of the great explorers. Matt James, meanwhile, traces all these journeys, in timelines, maps and wonderfully naive, yet haunting paintings, with a particular focus on the tragic Franklin expedition of 1845-1848.

Memorial to the Franklin Expedition, Naval College Greenwich. Several rescue missions were launched to find Franklin and his men. No members of the Franklin expedition survived, though. Source: Wikipedia.

The wonderful blend of the various journeys – Rogers, Franklin & Co. – and genres – picture book, song, historical report – makes “Northwest Passage” a gripping read for old and young, music lovers and history geeks. Just like Rogers’ song, the book has quickly obtained a cult status in Canadian literature. And personally, I can’t wait for the next history song book!

Ah, for just one time I would take the Northwest Passage / To find the hand of Franklin reaching for the Beaufort Sea / Tracing one warm line through a land so wide and savage / And make a Northwest Passage to the sea…

For further information

About “Northwest Passage”:


About Arctic exploration and the Franklin expedition:

Russel Potter, Arctic spectacles. The frozen North in visual culture, 1818–1875 (2007).

Russel Potter, Finding Franklin. The untold story of a 165-year search (2015)

Russel Potter has compiled a wonderful website about Franklin as well as a fascinating blog, Visions of the North. You can find extensive bibliographies there.


Until 7 January 2018, you can still visit the special exhibition Death in the ice: The shocking story of Franklin’s final expedition at the National Maritime Museum Greenwich (UK).





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