Originally published in Quebec in 2008, I read the 2010 edition translated into English by Sheila Fischman.
There are three noteworthy epigraphs:
“Sail, sail adventurous Barks! Go fearless forth,
Storm on his glacier-seat the misty North,
Give to mankind the inhospitable zone,
And Britain’s trident plant in seas unknown. ”
- Eleanor Porden
“The Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty have, in every
respect, provided most liberally for the comforts of the
officers and men of an expedition which may, with the
facilities of the screw-propeller, and other advantages of
modern science, be attended with great results.”
- The Times, May 12th, 1845
“You are mad and I am blind;
Tell me, who will take us home?” - Jalal Ud Din Rumi
“The sun was shining on that 19th day of May in 1845, when the Erebus and the Terror were preparing to cast off at Greenhithe, their reflections shivering in the greenish water of the port where floated garlands, handfuls of rice, and small dead fish.A crowd of a good ten thousand was assembled on the docks to witness the departure of Sir John Franklin, hero of the Arctic, who was setting off once again to conquer the mythic Northwest Passage, as always for the greater glory of the Empire. On the deck of the Erebus, in full regalia, the explorer was holding aloft a coloured handkerchief so that his wife Jane, Lady Franklin, could easily make him out in the midst of his inferiors, who were waving handkerchiefs of black silk.”
The story is told using journal entries made by John Franklin and Francis Crozier, second-in-command of the expedition juxtaposed with accounts of what Jane Franklin was doing either on her own travels or at home and also the details of some of the activities of her niece Sophia, her sister Fanny and her step-daughter Eleanor. There are also letters that provide considerable background information such as the “Instructions from Sir John Barrow (second secretary to the Admiralty) to Sir John Franklin complete with latitude and longitude readings.
An early log entry by Sir John reads: “Terror and Erebus weighed anchor in the Port of Greenhithe on 20 May for a Journey undertaken by order of the Admiralty with the objective of discovering and navigating a Passage leading from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. 129 men on board 2 Ships. The pages that follow are the Ship’s Log of Captain John Franklin, Commander in Chief of the Expedition.”
Sir John “had discussed at length with his wife the contents of this logbook, which would in all likelihood become a valuable document for geographers, seamen, merchants, servicemen, and scientists of the day, as well as for posterity. He had agreed with Lady Jane that he would use a concise style and content himself with delivering factual information as precisely as possible. …Lady Jane would take what he had written and polish it sentence by sentence, as she was accustomed to doing for all the documents her husband composed, and, with his consent, she would breathe new life into them and give them the scope by which one can recognize the accounts by the great discoverers.”
Fortier further humanizes the story for us with details about various crew members: Crozier gave classes in the common room and one fellow “asked to be taught to read”…”others were curious to learn the principles of physics, optics, the laws of astronomy and magnetism _ subjects on which Crozier enjoyed holing forth. Others still spent those few hours consulting the technical and scientific works that had been brought on board in their hundreds. But oddly enough, it was the novels and books of poems that enjoyed the greatest success.” The Vicar of Wakefield and the poems of Lord Tennyson (a nephew of Sir John Franklin) were among the most popular books. “One seaman showed an unexpected talent for caligraphy; another was able to solve equations with a number of unknowns without the help of pen and paper; a cook’s helper discovered a passion for magnetism, a science for which he had something of a gift, as Crozier discovered when he was setting out the basic principles to a small group.” The latter young man turned out to be Adam Tuesday (he was found on a Tuesday on the steps of the orphanage where he had been abandoned). Crozier learned from Adam that he had read all the books on board on magnetism and also the Sonnets of William Shakespeare which he “particularly liked.” Details such as this made the characters come alive.
Also included is a description of John Franklin’s first marriage to Eleanor Anne Porden whom Jane met when Eleanor was twenty-three. Eleanor was a poet and Jane found her choice of Franklin as a husband disappointing but changed her mind about this later when she discovered that “John Franklin was prepared to learn, to change, to improve himself. All that was needed was a firm hand to guide him.” Jane married John Franklin after “Eleanor died following a lingering consumption.”
And what of “the proper use of stars”?
Stars receive at least two major mentions in the book: in Tasmania where Sophia first meets Francis Crozier and John Ross who were on an expedition to Antarctica, she has a discussion about stars with each of the two captains. After dancing with John Ross she asks him if he knows all the stars and he replies that he knows “the sailors’ stars” and that he “know[s] the stories less than their usefulness for navigators when it is time to take one’s bearings”. “Sophia sighed in the face of such dull pragmatism. They were alone beneath a sky that could have been studded with diamonds…and here she was with this deuced Captain who could only talk about navigation.” Shortly afterwards, Crozier comes upon her at the ship’s rail and when he comments on the fact that she might prefer to be alone she replies: “No, no, stay, it’s fine. You can no doubt teach me a great many fascinating things about the proper use of stars in navigation.” Crozier thinks and says that he has been too “blunt” and apologizes and tries again. They have a very different conversation in which he discovers for her a new constellation by pointing to eight stars and then”by drawing an S in the middle of the sky that appeared, after being designated, to shine with a more brilliant light.” Pragmatism vs. romanticism?
A second mention of stars comes a few pages later when a crewman named Thomas observes that there are more stars to be seen from the deck of the expedition’s ships than he had ever seen at home. He believes this to be because there are no other lights to outshine the stars and dim their brilliance. One can’t help but think about how that applies to our modern urban skies. Then he sees the Aurora borealis which “seems to confirm for him that the place where he is, is at once at the end and the dawn of the world.”
The fate of the Franklin expedition of 1845 may or may not be known to you. I would highly recommend that you not do any research in advance as it will all become quite clear quickly in this relatively short novel. I find that it has inspired me to do more research and I am particularly looking forward to some additional reading on Lady Jane Franklin. I have had a book on my shelf for a few years now by Canadian writer Ken McGoogan: Lady Franklin’s Revenge. This book is sub-titled A True Story of Ambition, Obsession and the Remaking of Arctic History. With the reading of On the Proper Use of Stars it has made a quantum leap to the top of my To Be Read list thus illustrating one of the greatest rewards of reading : it leads to more reading. Enjoy!
“My sister Greta, and I were having our portrait painted by our uncle Finn that afternoon because he knew he was dying. This was after I understood that I wasn’t going to grow up and move into his apartment and live there with him for the rest of my life. After I stopped believing that the AIDS thing was all some kind of mistake.”
I”m fifteen now, but I was still fourteen that afternoon. Greta was sixteen. It was 1986, late Decmber, and we’d been going to Finn’s one Sunday afternoon a month for the last six months. It was always just my mother, Greta and me. My father never came, and he was right not to. He wasn’t part of it.”
“Nobody talked much on those trips to the city. It was just the smooth glide of the van and the croony country music and the gray Hudson River with hulking gray New Jersey on the other side of it. I kept my eyes on Greta the whole time, because it stopped me from thinking about Finn too much.”
“On the way home I asked Greta if she thought you could catch AIDS from hair. She shrugged, then turned and stared out the window for the rest of the ride. I shampooed my hair three times that night (June’s Uncle Finn has kissed the top of her hair when Greta had pulled out some mistletoe). I thought about how just for a second, just as he’d leaned into me, AIDS and Greta and my mother had disappeared from the room. It was only Finn and me in that tiniest of moments, and before I could stop myself I wondered what it might be like if he really did kiss my lips.”
June’s relationship with her uncle made Greta jealous and caused a rupture in the girls’ formerly loving companionship. “Greta knew the kind of friend Finn was to me. She knew that he took me to art galleries, that he taught me how to soften my drawings of faces just by rubbing a finger along the pencil lines. She knew that she wasn’t part of any of that.” “It’s hard to say exactly when we stopped being best friends, when we stopped even resembling two girls who were sisters. Greta went to high school and I was in middle school. Greta had new friends and I started having Finn. Greta got prettier and I got …weirder.” Greta accused June of being in love with Uncle Finn.
Uncle Finn took June to the Cloisters and it became their favorite place. They were “like a piece of another time right at the top of Manhatten. …made of huge chunks of French medieval monasteries that were shipped to New York and stuck together. ” June imagined being with Finn there and “illuminating manuscripts with the thinnest flakes of gold leaf” and not saying a word but gazing at one another across the room. “That’s the kind of love I imagined with Finn. That’s what I told myself.” Finn took her to movies like Amadeus and Room with a View and he talked to her about the characters.
June knew Uncle Finn was dying but the news was still a great shock. A man’s voice left a message: “I’m ringing about your uncle. Uncle Finn in the city. I”ll try back later.”
June had not picked up the phone. “Finn was gone. I knew Finn was gone. …I picked up the phone and dialed his number, which I knew by heart.”
The person who had called was seen at the funeral home and June begins to wonder who he is and what he was doing in her Uncle Finn’s apartment when he called. What a shock for June: Uncle Finn had a friend who might have even lived in his apartment where June and Greta went to have their portrait painted every Sunday. How could that be?
Here’s the first reference to the wolves (June has gone for a walk in the woods after a snowstorm and is lying flat out in the snow, looking up at the twisted patterns of the bare tree branches against the gray sky):
“Then, into the silence, over the top of everything, came a long, sad howl. For a second it felt like the sound had come from inside me. Like the world had taken everything I was feeling and turned it into sound….By the time I sat up, there were two howls. … The howls weren’t steady. Both of them had a kind of cracked-voice sound to them, and they were staggered. …The howls grew louder, and a picture of a big lunging gray wolf with tons of matted fur popped into my mind. For a single dumb moment it really did feel like I was in the woods in the Middle Ages, when wolves could take away babies or eat a person whole.
“I’m not afraid,” I called out across the hills. Then I ran, stumbling and tripping…out of the woods, into the school parking lot…doubled over, catching my breath.”
Then an article appears in The New York Times about the portrait of the two girls. In the article it is revealed that the portrait is entitled ‘Tell the Wolves I’m Home’. None of the family had known this was the title of the painting. June is convinced that only Toby, Finn’s friend, could have known this. She has learned his friend’s name from a letter he sent asking to meet her.
Ah…but that’s a good place to stop. An extremely good coming-of-age story full of relational wisdom for all ages. Fun literary references, movie titles, television shows. Also a rather unique adventure surrounding the portrait. Enjoy!
“They appear more often now, both of them, and on every visit they seem more impatient with me and with the world. There is something hungry and rough in them, a brutality boiling in their blood…But I am not being hunted now. Not any more. I am being cared for, and questioned softly, and watched. …They think I do not understand what is slowly growing in the world; they think I do not see the point of their questions and do not notice the cruel shadow of exasperation that comes hooded in their faces or hidden in their voices when I say something pointless or foolish, something which leads us nowhere. …They are too locked into their vast and insatiable needs and too dulled by the remnants of a terror we all felt then to have noticed that I remember everything. Memory fills my body as much as blood and bones.”
“Of the two men who come, one was there with us until the end…I know that he has written of things that neither he saw nor I saw. I know that he has also given shape to what I lived through and he witnessed, and that he has made sure that these words will matter, that they will be listened to.”
“I remember too much; I am like the air on a calm day as it holds itself still, letting nothing escape. As the world holds its breath, I keep memory in.”
There are those around Mary who want to help her and there are those whom she intuits are a threat and sometimes the line between must seem very thin. “Just as my two friends who visit are looking for my voice, my witness, this man who played dice (for her son’s clothes), and the strangler (a man who had a huge bird in a cage and rabbits in a bag and strangled the rabbits to feed to the bird), or others like them, must be looking for my silence. I will know them if they come and it should hardly matter now, since the days left are few, but I remain, in my waking time, desperately afraid of them.”
To appreciate this account, empathy for a mother who has witnessed her son’s death by extreme violence of a kind that would be defined as cruel torture in contemporary terms is essential. The account is creative fiction, yes, but the likelihood that it happened this way is strong. That she believed her son innocent of a crime punishable by death is also likely and that she was confused about the events that brought about his death is an extremely likely possibility. The publisher’s blurb on the jacket says that “Tóibín’s tour de force of imagination, language, and compassion provides a portrait so vivid and convincing that our image of Mary will be forever transformed.” The latter may happen if the reader can overcome the disinclination to exercise compassion where a story so submerged in our culture by rote repetition of the events that compassion for Christ’s mother has been leached out of the details over time.
It seems simple but many readers have rejected Tóibín’s interpretation. Perhaps they are not so very different from the men around Mary immediately prior to the crucifixion: “They have no interest in my fear and the fear all those around me felt, the sense that there were men waiting to round us up too when we sought to move away, that there seemed no possibility that we would not be held.”
While waiting for the inevitable, Mary recalls events of her son’s childhood: …”the day our son was lost and how we found him and what was said. I cannot say the name, it will not come, something will break in me if I say the name. So we call him ‘him’, ‘my son’, ‘our son’,’the one who was here’, ‘your friend’, ‘the one you are interested in’. Maybe before I die I will say the name or manage on one of those nights to whisper it but I do not think so.”
She recalls speaking with him on one occasion over a meal before he left home: “He gathered around him, I said, a group of misfits, who were only children like himself, or men without fathers, or men who could not look a woman in the eye. Men who were seen smiling to themselves, or who had grown old when they were still young. Not one of you was normal, I said, and I watched him push his plate of half-eaten food towards me as though he were a child in a tantrum. Yes, misfits, I said. My son gathered misfits, although he himself, despite everything, was not a misfit; he could have done anything, he could have been quiet even, he had that capacity also, the one that is the rarest, he could have spent time alone with ease, he could look at a woman as though she were his equal, and he was grateful, good-mannered, intelligent. And he used all of it, I said, so he could lead a group of men who trusted him from place to place. I have no time for misfits, I said, but if you put two of you together you will get not only foolishness and the usual cruelty but you will get a desperate need for something else. Gather together misfits, I said, pushing the plate back towards him, and you will get anything at all – fearlessness, ambition, anything – and before it dissolves or it grows, it will lead to what I saw and what I live with now.”
For me, the above speech appeared entirely realistic and I believe it did succeed in making me think differently about the bible stories I heard and learned as a child. The same is true for the story about Jesus being lost and then found in the temple : the coloured pictures presented in Sunday school of a rosy cheeked Jesus surrounded by the elders of the temple answering questions for them? Imagine a child, even an exceptional child, being so received by the elders of one of today’s religious sects. And yet, I never questioned the likelihood as I sat in a circle every Sunday. How many of us did? What image did we have of Jesus’ mother? These were all images created generations after the actual events and devoid of the dirt and poverty and political turmoil and intrigue of the times. Tóibín’s attempt to provide us with another image of Mary and her son inspired me to revisit some research topics I have not looked at in a long time. It might do the same for you.
This is a delightful, daring, delicious, diverting and demanding dragon tale! And it has a sequel which I have started into already because I must know what happens next!
Most of what one needs to know is concisely provided in two pages entitled From the Primer Scrolls of Jion Tzu which states:
“No one knows how the first Dragoneyes made their dangerous bargain with the twelve energy dragons of good fortune. The few scrolls and poems that have survived the centuries start the story well after the deal was struck between man and spirit-beast to protect our land. It is rumored however, that a black folio still exists that tells of the violent beginning and predicts a catastrophic end to the ancient alliance.
The dragons are elemental beings, able to manipulate Hua – the natural energy that exists in all things. Each dragon is aligned with one of the heavenly animals in the twelve-year cycle of power…Each dragon is also the guardian of one of the twelve celestial directions, and a keeper of one of the Greater Virtues.”
Every year on New Year’s Day the next animal year begins and the dragon representing that animal becomes ascendant and his power doubles for the next twelve months. Also for that dragon a new apprentice is chosen and the present apprentice becomes Dragoneye and replaces his master who retires. The Dragoneye has enough power to move monsoons, redirect rivers and stop earthshakes. His bargain includes giving up his Hua to his dragon.
“Only those boys who can see an energy dragon can hope to be a Dragoneye candidate.” The boys go through a rigorous training program. This includes a study of Dragon Magic, based on East Asian astrology and based on the skills of sword-work and magical aptitude. It is understood that “women have no place in the world of the dragon magic.
It is said they can bring corruption to the art and do not have the physical strength or depth of character needed to commune with an energy dragon. It s also thought that the female eye, too practiced in gazing at itself, cannot see the truth of the energy world.”
At the outset we meet Eon at a training session: “I let the tips of both my swords dig into the sandy arena floor. It was the wrong move, but the dragging pain in my gut was pulling me into a crouch. I watched Swordmaster Ranne’s bare feet shuffle forward, rebalancing his weight for a sweep cut. Training with him always made my innards cramp with fear, but this was different. This was the bleeding pain. Had I miscounted the moon days?”
The Swordmaster tells Eon: “You’ll never be ready. You can’t even finish the approach sequence.”
Eon has a comfort that eases the harsh treatment from Ranne: “I was the only candidate who could see all of the dragons at will, not counting the Mirror Dragon, of course, who had been lost long ago. It took all my focus to see the spirit beasts and left me weary, but it was the only thing that had made the last two years of hard training bearable. It was also the only reason why a cripple like me was allowed to stand as a candidate – full dragon sight was rare, although, as Swordmaster Ranne liked to remind me, no guarantee of success.”
Needless to say,there is considerable pressure on the candidates for dragoneye apprenticeship. Eon ‘s friend Dillon was as worried as Eon was about the ceremony. Dillon and Eon “were the weakest candidates. He was of age – twelve, like all the boys in the circle – but as small as an eight year old, and I was lame. In the past, we wouldn’t even have been considered as Dragoneye candidates. Neither of us was expected to be chosen by the Rat Dragon in the ceremony tomorrrow. All the gambling rings have Dillon at a 30:1 chance. I was at 1000:1. The odds might be against us but even the council did not know how a dragon made its choice.”
Tough odds! and reason to be worried. Lives would change for those who were not successful. “Candidates no longer fought for the honor of approaching the mirrors, but we still had to prove our strength and stamina in the ceremonial sword sequences. At least Dillon could complete the approach sequence, even if it was poorly done. I had never once managed the intricate moves at the Mirror Dragon Third.”
Much was riding on this contest. If the Rat Dragon chose a boy he would “hold status for twenty-four years; first working as apprentice to the existing Dragoneye and then, when he (that Dragoneye) retired, working the energies” himself. He would earn “a mountain of riches, even with the 20 per cent tithe” to his former master. To Eon, it meant that “no one would dare spit at him or make the ward-evil sign or turn their face away in disgust (because he was a cripple).”
If he did not get chosen, he would be lucky to be kept on as a servant in his master’s house likely as a slops boy or be sent back to the salt farm where he used to work.
No wonder Eon was puzzled by his gift to see all eleven dragons and his ability to shift his mind into the energy world and see those huge translucent bodies. He was told by the Armsmaster the day before the ceremony that he was never going to be able to get the Mirror Dragon Third sequence right but that there was a precedent for using a Reverse Horse Dragon Second and that Ranne should have told him about this. He checks with his master when he goes home and learns that what he has been told is correct. This means he has a chance.
Will he become a Dragoneye? How will he manage being a cripple and all? Why has it been made so difficult for him? Who are his friends? Who are his enemies? How will he manage against such odds? A great story that holds and grabs one’s attention to the end and leaves one wanting more, more, more!
In the preface to the Vintage edition, the author relays a number of interesting things about this story. He explains that he was a student at St. Thomas’s Hospital and had six weeks of Easter vacation during which he went to Italy with his clothes and twenty pounds in his pocket. His widowed landlady’s daughter was teaching him Italian during part of the day and they were reading the Purgatorio and she told him a story connected to a passage they were translating.
“She told me that Pia was a gentlewoman of Siena whose husband, suspecting her of adultery and afraid on account of her family to put her to death, took her down to his castle in the Maremma the noxious vapors of which he was confident would do the trick; but she took so long to die that he grew impatient and had her thrown out the window…the story for some reason caught my imagination.” He goes on and explains that he forgot the story for a long time and when he did think of it could not “think of a setting in the world of today in which such events could plausibly happen. It was not until I made a long journey in China that I found this.”
Maugham also writes: “I think this is the only novel I have written in which I started from a story rather than from a character. It is difficult to explain the relation between character and plot. You cannot very well think of a character in the void; the moment you think of him, you think of him in some situation, doing something; so that the character and at least his principal action seem to be the result of a simultaneous act of the imagination. But in this case the characters were chosen to fit the story I gradually evolved; they were constructed from persons I had long known in different circumstances.” This is followed by a brief tale of problems naming characters and legal challenges to same: this would be of interest to those doing any writing of their own.
The actual story catches the reader’s interest immediately: “She gave a startled cry.” Someone has just tried the door of a room and interrupted something. Very cinematic. Do you imagine a room in disarray, clothing scattered about, one shoe here, one there?
It is decided very quickly that the person trying the door and the windows too has to be Walter because the servants never disturb her at this time so it has to be Walter even though he “never does come home in the middle of the day, does he?” This is important because they have already realized that a hat was left downstairs which might give away the presence of another person in the house. They convince themselves it must have been a servant because “only a Chinese would turn a handle in that way.”
They discuss what they think will happen: “What’s to be done if it was Walter? she asked.
“”Perhaps he wouldn’t care.”
Her tone was incredulous.”
The reader, at this point, knows no more about Walter than about the two people discussing Walter. At this point we do not have names for the two people who are so worried about Walter. In the next short chapter we learn that the woman is Kitty, that her lover is Charlie Townsend, the Assistant Colonial Secretary at Hong Kong and his wife is Dorothy Townsend, mother of Charlie’s three sons. Dorothy’s father had been a Colonial Governor. The triangle is complete.
Kitty has been meeting Charlie in the upstairs backroom of a Chinese curio dealer off the Victoria Road in Hong Kong and she found it “dreadfully sordid”. Charles Townsend, however, was everything her husband Walter was not. He told her everything she wanted and needed to hear. “She had never been in love before. It was wonderful. And now that she knew what love was she felt a sudden sympathy for the love that Walter bore her.”
“Her happiness, sometimes almost more than she could bear, renewed her beauty. Just before she married, beginning to lose her first freshness, she had looked tired and drawn. The uncharitable said that she was going off. But there is all the difference between a girl of twenty-five and a married woman of that age. She was like a rosebud that is beginning to turn yellow at the edges of the petals, and then suddenly she was a rose in full bloom…She looked eighteen once more. She was at the height of her glowing loveliness…She was what Charlie had called her the first time he saw her, a raging beauty.”
“They managed their intrigue with skill. …They could not meet often alone, not half often enough for him, but he had to think of her first, sometimes in the curio shop, now and then after luncheon in her house when no one was about; but she saw him a good deal here and there.”
“She worshipped him. He was splendid …certainly he was the best dancer she had ever danced wth; it was a dream to dance with him. No one would think he was forty. She told him she did not believe it…He laughed. He was well pleased.”
And what of Walter? “Of course it was not certain yet that Walter knew the truth, and if he didn’t it was better perhaps to leave well alone; but if he did, well, in the end it would be the best thing for all of them. …It was not as though any one would suffer very much. She knew exactly what his relations were with his wife. She was a cold woman and there had been no love between them for years. …Walter loved her; but after all, he was absorbed in his work; and a man always had his club; he might be upset at first, but he would get over it; there was no reason why he should not marry someone else. Charlie had told her that he could not make out how she came to throw herself away on Walter Fane.”
Is it ever that simple? If you haven’t read this 1925 classic you might be pleasantly surprised. I found it an intriguing read with the exotic setting a major character. If you read it some time go, a reread might be surprisingly enjoyable.