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The Voyage of the Narwhal by Andrea Barrett

The Voyage of the Narwhal (1998)

by Andrea Barrett

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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While the historical and scientific detail were incredible in this book, I felt like there was too much. The characters were interesting and their struggles were difficult to read through but overall I enjoyed the book other than what felt like a lot of data dumping. ( )
  novawalsh | Jan 17, 2018 |
adventure + tragedy + love on arctic adventure — flora + fauna — desires of people in exploration. 1855's what they wanted — fame — hero of the day — starts out searching for lost ship, new discoveries, men lost — Zeke brings back Eskimos

Through the eyes of the ship's scholar-naturalist, Erasmus Darwin Wells, we encounter the Narwhal's crew, its commander, and the far-north culture of the Esquimaux. In counterpoint, we meet the women left behind in Philadelphia, explorers only in imagination. Together, those who travel and those who stay weave a web of myth and mystery, finally discovering what they had not sought, the secrets of their own hearts.
  christinejoseph | May 15, 2017 |
Based on the heroic explorations to find a Northwest passage, this story is about two men who were trying to discover the fate of a previous expedition of (historic) Sir John Franklin and his ships, the Erebus and the Terror. Another (hisotir) explorer, Dr. Kane, had headed off in one direction but (fictitious) Erasmus Wells and Zeke Vorhees thought they would have a better chance searching in a different area. Erasmus was raised and educated to be a naturalist and was primarily interested in recording the flora and fauna found in these extreme regions. Zeke was kind of a wannabe, had intruded his was into Erasmus' family, enchanted his sister, Lavinia, and figured he could make his fortune lecturing and writing books about his discoveries. His only previous experience at sea was crossing the Atlantic from Scotland. Erasmus had accompanied an expedition to the South Seas and the Antarctic. He was responsible for stocking the ship with enough stores to last the voyage and possible overwintering.

Soon after departing, however, Zeke showed his true colors and it became evident to Erasmus that he was going to be elbowed out of any possible glory. The reader follows the group as they poke along the coast looking for evidence of the previous explorer. Zeke insisted they go further north and it was little surprise when they were caught by the ice. Preparations were made to collect as much meat as they could to supplement their supplies and fuel was carefully portioned to last until they were free of ice again. As spring began to slowly melt the ice, Zeke wanted to go overland for one last chance to find anything. At this point no one wanted to explore any further but wanted to wait and leave when possible. They waited for days after his promised return and finally left without him carrying a boat by sledge over the ice to open water when possible. They eventually met some whaling ships and one offered to bring those who wanted, a trip home. Some of the crew wanted to try and recoup some money by continuing with the whalers and sealers. Erasmus went home to tell his sister that Zeke had not survived.

Recovering from lost toes and defeat, Erasmus slowly came back to living and writing and recording all he had seen. But a surprise was in store for him. Zeke was not dead.

This was an interesting look into the era of exploration and brave men going where no one had gone before, before there were improvements in clothing and navigation and other means of making such a trip possible. It was also a time when people went to lectures to listen to such explorers and relive their adventures through their words. It was a time when what they saw was recreated laboriously by hand in engravings and paintings. ( )
  mamzel | Apr 17, 2016 |
Summary: Erasmus Wells always wanted to be an explorer and naturalist, but his first experience with a collecting expedition in which the captain claimed credit for all of Erasmus's work has left him somewhat bitter. But now he's offered the chance to go on another expedition - to the Arctic this time - ostensibly to look for signs of a previous polar expedition that had disappeared without a trace the year before. It's being captained by Zeke, a young man raised in the Wells family, sweetheart to Erasmus's sister, and with a fierce drive to make a name for himself. This drive leads to tensions between the members of the expedition party and the crew of the Narwhal, the ship they've hired to take them to the far reaches of the North. And then when a disastrous decision means that the crew must overwinter in the Arctic, trapped in the ice throughout the endless night, Erasmus must face where his loyalties and his principles truly lie.

Review: I found this book really interesting, and very well written, but not exactly enjoyable. It (like Andrea Barrett's other books) was chock-full of the history of science. Erasmus and the Narwhal were fictional, but many other aspects of the story were not, and the Narwhal felt like a vivid and realistic representation of something that could have happened. Similarly, the characters were discussing and debating many of the scientific theories of the day, in such a way as to really give the reader a feeling for what the general zeitgeist of the time was. The details about the daily life of the expedition Barrett provided were excellent, and woven into the fabric of the story in such a way as to build the world of the Narwhal and its trials (and the world of the Philidelphia society they were coming from) up around me. This was done so effectively that it actually made me claustrophobic at times, particularly during the portion of the book where the Narwhal is stuck in the ice. This was probably made worse by the fact that I was reading the audiobook - I typically find audiobooks more immersive than print, and so there were times I would have to turn it off, shake myself, and remind myself that it was in the 80s and sunny outside, and that I was in no imminent danger of going insane while slowly freezing to death. (So while that was a point in favor of the audiobook, in general, this is one book where I'd recommend reading the print version. I found the narrator's pace of speaking to be intolerably slow - thank goodness for Audible's 1.25x speed button!) Barrett's writing was also really lovely, and felt believably authentic, its tone well-matched to the period.

However, while I was interested and engaged by the book, it's hard to say that I really enjoyed the experience of reading it, and that's down entirely to a lack of truly likable characters (some of the secondary characters - Ned Kind, and Dr. Boorhave, and Alexandra - were generally likable, but it wasn't enough to salvage things). Zeke drove me crazy - I don't think I've ever rooted harder for a mutiny to happen - and while Erasmus was mostly sympathetic, he was too waffly and hand-wringing for my tastes, especially when it came to matters involving Zeke. I suppose if he'd grown a spine sooner, it would have been a much shorter book, but ARGH! This book did make for an interesting book club, with lots of fodder for discussion about the attitudes of the time, and the nature of loyalty, and what Zeke's motivations were and whether we thought those were believable, and why Erasmus didn't just tip Zeke over the side already and tell everyone that he'd been eaten by a polar bear. 4 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: I like books about the history of science and the history of exploration, so this novel was straight up my alley. If you also like those things, I definitely think this is worth reading, even if it was a little crazy-making at times. ( )
1 vote fyrefly98 | Jul 16, 2015 |
This may be considered a book of two halves - the voyage of the narwhal, and the return of its crew. Of these I much preferred the former - but then I have a taste for polar adventure. Books set in the confines of a crowded boat are always rich pickings for character driven narrative, conflict, violence and loss. Scientific discovery in the C19th is fertile territory for musings about our human nature, and for enumerating our outworn norms (phrenology anyone?) And there is much to describe of wonder and of horror. A largely fruitless scientific and exploratory voyage to discover what had occurred to John Franklin's ships turns full circle to become a voyage into the human heart and into the back country of the most civilised nation on the planet.
  otterley | Jun 14, 2015 |
Showing 1-5 of 26 (next | show all)
Barrett's marvelous achievement is to have reimagined so graphically that cusp of time when Victorian certainty began to question whether it could encompass the world with its outward-bound enthusiasm alone -- when it started to glimpse the dark ballast beneath the iceberg's dazzling tip.
It's been a long time since an American novel appeared that's as stately and composed as Andrea Barrett's "The Voyage of the Narwhal," the fictional account of a 19th century Arctic expedition and its aftermath that doubles also as a meditation on the nature of adventure and the scientific mind. In "The Voyage of the Narwhal," she has shaped a compelling narrative around the golden age of Arctic exploration, written in the spirit, if not the length or the exact style, of a 19th century novel -- solid, unhurried, reflective and totally wedded to plot. Barrett tells her story through multiple voices -- Erasmus, Zeke, their colleagues, the crew and the women waiting patiently at home -- but "Voyage of the Narwhal" is her own creation, marvelously imagined and beautifully told. A first-rate novel and a welcome, old-fashioned read.
Like "Ship Fever," "Narwhal" showcases Ms. Barrett's gifts for extracting high drama from the complex world of science and natural history and for placing her characters in situations that reveal their fundamental natures. Indeed, "Narwhal" is an adventure story in the way that Conrad's "Lord Jim" and "The Nigger of the Narcissus" are adventure stories: the story's extreme conditions and harrowing experiences, which make for such gripping reading, are actually moral and spiritual tests that strip away the characters' public masks and expose their innermost drives and fears.

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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Andrea Barrettprimary authorall editionscalculated
Guidall, GeorgeNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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He was standing on the wharf, peering down at the Delaware River while the sun beat on his shoulders.
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Book description
Part adventure narrative, part love story, this extraordinary chronicle captures a crucial moment in the history of exploration, the mid-nineteenth-century romance with the mystery of the Arctic. Combining fact and fiction, Barrett focuses on Erasmus Darwin Wells, a scholar-naturalist accompanying the expedition of the Narwhal. Through his eyes we meet the various crew members and the expedition's blustery commander, obsessed with the search for an open polar sea, and we experience the wild, disturbing beauties of that last unexplored region.

In counterpoint to his view are those of the Esquimaux, witness to the expedition's exploits, and of the women left behind in Philadelphia, who can only imagine what lies beyond the north wind. Together, those who travel and those who stay weave a web of myth and history. In the real nineteenth-century expeditions, explorers' documents always cast the writer as hero. But what really happened up there, in the long winter darkness, trapped in ice?

On the Narwhal, everyone is frightened, nothing is certain, and heroics emerge in unexpected guises. Barrett's explorers discover — as all explorers do — not what was always there and never needed discovering, but the state of their own souls.

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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0393319504, Paperback)

In Andrea Barrett's extraordinary novel of Arctic and personal exploration, maps are deceitful, ice all-powerful, and reputation more important than truth or human lives. When the Narwhal sets sail from Philadelphia in May 1855, its ostensible goal is to find the crew of a long-vanished expedition--or at least their relics--and be home before winter. Of course, if the men can chart new coasts and stock up on specimens en route, so much the better. And then there's the keen prospect of selling their story, fraught with danger and discovery, to a public thirsting for excitement. Zeke Voorhees, the Narwhal's young commander, is so handsome that he makes women stare and men "hum with envy"--perhaps not the best qualification for his post--but he seems loved by all. Only his brother-in-law-to-be, a naturalist, quietly mistrusts him, though he's determined to stand by the youth for his sister Lavinia's sake. At 40, eternal low-profiler Erasmus Darwin Wells has one disastrous expedition behind him and is praying for another scientific chance. He is, however, familiar with the physical risks they're taking, as well as the "long stretches when nothing happened except that one's ties to home were imperceptibly dissolved and one became a stranger to one's life."

And what of the women left behind? Lavinia knows little of the dangers of ice (though she's well schooled in isolation) and lives only for Zeke's return. Her companion, Alexandra Copeland, is less sanguine. Even after she's been given a secret career break--ghosting for an ailing engraver--she knows how invisible she is and how threatening her family's "dense net of obligations" will always be. Though they get less page time, Barrett is in fact as concerned with these women as she is with her seafarers. Like the heroines of her National Book Award-winning Ship Fever, who bump up against science and history in which only men's triumphs are written, they must somehow escape social tyranny or retreat into the consolations of storytelling or silence.

There is tyranny on board the Narwhal as well, as Zeke alternates between good will and paranoia, his closest companion an arctic fox he has "civilized" and who sits on his shoulder "like a white epaulet." (Alas, Sabine, like many of the men, is not to survive the journey.) Encounters with the Esquimaux--who might know more about the lost expedition than they're willing to share--not having gone according to plan, Zeke determines in late August to head for Smith Sound rather than home, despite the crew's protests. By mid-September, however, the craft is ice-locked, and it's clear they'll have to "winter over." At first the men make the best of their situation, magically sculpting cottages, castles, palaces, even a whale--and offering informal seminars in butchery, Bible studies, and basic navigation. However, as the weather worsens and Zeke grows increasingly despotic, morale plummets.

Barrett excels in both physical and social description, writing with a naturalist's precision and a passionate imagination. With quick strokes (backed up by intense research), she can fill us in on some sensible but threatening Esquimaux footgear: "All five were dressed in fur jackets and breeches, with high boots made from the leg skins of white bears. The men's feet, Erasmus saw, were sheltered by the bears' feet, with claws protruding like overgrown human toenails. Walking, the men left bear prints on the snow." The author also shines in panoramic scenes--her descriptions of the Arctic can only be called magnificent--and in small, precarious, personal moments. When Erasmus eventually returns to Philadelphia, minus his toes and his future brother-in-law, a grieving Lavinia takes to her bed. Eventually, however, she relents: "Lavinia stared straight ahead. Straight at Erasmus, her right hand tucked in her lap while her left turned a silver spoon back to front, front to back, the reflections melting, re-forming, and melting again.... Lavinia said softly, 'I forgive you.' Everyone knew she was speaking to Erasmus."

The Voyage of the Narwhal is full of blood-freezing surprises, a score of indelible characters, and heart-stopping mysteries. As Erasmus watches Alexandra draw landscapes he has seen before but missed something in, each pencil stroke is "like a chisel held to a cleavage plane: tap, tap, and the rock split into two sharp pieces, the world cracked and spoke to him." Readers of Andrea Barrett's novel will experience this sensation again and again. Packed with harsh truths about the not-always-true art of discovery, it is also among the most emotionally wrenching, subtle works of the century. --Kerry Fried

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:25:15 -0400)

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In 1885 Erasmus Darwin Wells embarks an expedition to the Arctic to search for the explorer, John Franklin. Erasmus' fears of failure seem to be realized when the voyage threatens to turn violent.

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