Fatal Passage is a biography of Scotsman John Rae, the man who discovered the fate of Sir John Franklin’s expedition to find the North-West Passage – the Fatal Passage of the title. It takes us from Rae’s childhood on Orkney, through his years working for the Hudson Bay Company, to his old age and death in London. We travel with him through Arctic wastes, living off the land and learning useful techniques from the native peoples. I’ve read more than once that Rae acquired relics of the Franklin expedition. I didn’t appreciate how much of the Arctic he explored and charted before he got them.
I first learned of John Rae about twenty years ago during a holiday in the Orkney Islands. Since then, the more I have read about him, the more I have come to respect and admire him. Fatal Passage describes a man who was ahead of his time in many ways. In an age when aboriginal peoples were written off as savages, Rae treated them with respect and learned from them. He came to prefer snow huts to tents, and learned to ice the runners of his sleds to make them run more smoothly.
Fatal Passage describes Rae’s exploration of the Arctic and his relationships with the men he worked with. It also describes the difficulties he had when he reported not only the fate of the Franklin expedition, but its descent into cannibalism. His refusal to recant, plus the fact that he worked for the Hudson Bay Company instead of the Royal Navy, ultimately led to problems with attribution of the areas he was responsible for charting. He has never officially been credited with discovering a navigable North-West Passage, although Amundsen was inspired by him and sailed the North-West Passage using the strait that John Rae discovered (Rae Strait).
This book won the Drainie-Taylor Biography prize and I can understand why. By the end of the book I felt that I knew John Rae. I cried when I read his wife’s description of his death. This is well worth reading.