A sparkling, inventive debut novel inspired by Sir John Franklin's grand — but ultimately failed — quest to discover the Northwest Passage and by his extraordinary wife, Lady Jane.
Originally published in Quebec as Du bon usage des etoiles, Dominique Fortier's debut On the Proper Use of Stars is as fresh and imaginative as anything published in recent years. It weaves together the voices of Francis Crozier, Sir John Franklin's second in command, who turns a sceptical eye on the grandiose ambitions and hubris of his leader, and of Lady Jane Franklin and her niece Sophia, both driven to uncommon actions by love and by frustration as months then years pass with no word from the expedition. Fortier skilfully accents the main narratives with overheard conversations and snippets from letters and documents that bring two entirely different worlds — the frozen Arctic and busy Victorian London — alive.close this panel
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 on 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. A brass band struck up the first bars of “God Save the Queen,” the chords joining the cheers and farewells; emotion was nearly at its peak. One might have thought, as a shrewd observer noted in the newspaper the following day, that England was celebrating the explorer’s triumphant return, not his departure. A dove flew lazily across the sky and touched down on the mast of the Terror, observing all the agitation with its head tipped a little to one side before settling comfortably, as if to hatch an egg. All agreed that it was a good omen.
Then the ships lumbered off to tackle unknown seas. The spectators went home. The hero of the Arctic, who was having difficulty recovering from a nasty bout of influenza, descended to his cabin, where he sipped a little tea and before long dozed off. Soon sailors, aides, and officers from the two ships returned to their respective posts. On the deck of the Terror, Francis Crozier, second-in- command of the expedition and commander of the aforementioned ship, stood alone, looking back at the V-shaped wake left in the water. Hearing a muffled sound behind him on the deck, he turned around and nearly stepped on the dove, which had tumbled from the mast. He took one wing between his thumb and forefinger: still warm, the limp bird stared at him with its round eyes. Quite unceremoniously Crozier flung the creature into the sea. The surgeon’s dog, Neptune, a rather ungainly mixture of beagle and wolfhound, pretended for a moment that he wanted to dive in after the bird, but changed his mind and proceeded instead to circle three times before he lay down on the deck and let out a loud fart.
25 May 1845
Scarcely one week has gone by since we weighed anchor, and the country that I left seems now to be farther away than the Moon and the stars above our heads, ever the same and ever different.
The sea is calm and the ships are sound. The Terror is my oldest friend, perhaps my only friend on this voyage when I cannot count on the presence of Ross, with whom I crossed the boundaries of Antarctica and into whose hands I would have agreed without hesitation to place my life once more. I insisted in vain that we have on board some of those whalers who know the treacherous waters of the Arctic better than any lieutenant of the British Navy, brave men to whom we owe most of the discoveries of this land of ice. Alas, the crew put together by Fitzjames is in the image of the man who chose it: elegant, enthusiastic, sure of itself, but sorely lacking in experience. Of the twenty-one officers – in the exclusive service of whom there are no fewer than eight men who I hope will not balk when the time comes that they must pull off their white gloves to scrub the deck or to furl the sails – only Sir John, the two ice masters, and I myself have ventured before into one or the other of the Polar circles. The most curious know nothing of the Arctic, may God have mercy upon us, save what they have read in the accounts of Parry and of Franklin himself, of which they recite passages with the same fervour as if they were verses of the Gospels. They are excited, like schoolboys being taken to the circus.
Scarcely one week and three times I have been summoned to dine on board the Erebus, Sir John seeming to believe that his duties include planning exquisite suppers and seeing to it that his officers do not suffer from boredom. In the morning he has brought to me small cards upon which it is written in careful script that “Sir John Franklin, Captain of the Erebus, requests the honour of the presence at his table of Francis Crozier, Captain of the Terror” – as if I were likely to confuse him with the captain of another vessel and present myself mistakenly on a ship where I was not expected. The men who are to bring him my reply wait, soaking wet, apparently astounded at such elaborate courtesies, while I turn the card over to write my answer, following which they row back in order to deliver the precious bit of paper. I must recommend that the lookouts agree upon a code so as to avoid these jaunts that transform our seamen pointlessly into messenger boys.
One dines well on the Erebus. Five bullocks that accompanied us on board the Baretto Junior, the supply ship, were sacrificed in a veritable hecatomb and prepared in various fashions. Yesterday we had a sole meunière, a splendid rib roast with buttered carrots and potatoes, and custard with berries, all served on silver plates struck with the arms or the monogram of the owner. The ridiculous is not pushed to the point of requiring that I supply my own cutlery, but I do use that of Sir John, who has apparently brought more than is strictly necessary.
We converse cheerfully about the voyage that is beginning, as if it were a hunting expedition with hounds, though I doubt that most of these gentlemen have ever killed any game more formidable than a partridge or, possibly, a fox. Most, like DesVoeux, harbour a boundless admiration for Sir John, hero of the Arctic, whose accounts of his courageous deeds had marked their childhood, the man who ate his boots and, contrary to all expectations, had been able to survive on his own in a wild and hostile place.
At the sight of this happy gathering, of the valets who serve and take away the dishes under their silver lids, of the wines that accompany each new course, one might think he was at a supper at the country home of a gentleman whose livestock had experienced a particularly productive year or who had just married off his daughter. Except that there is no lady present – although it is true that they must withdraw in any case once the last bit of food has been swallowed, to leave the gentlemen to their cigars and port – and the candelabra are fixed firmly to the table, where there are silver goblets in place of crystal stemware. Without forgetting of course that once the merrymaking is over, rather than requesting that my carriage be brought, I ask for oarsmen to be called who, at the end of a voyage that can require as much as two hours on the rollers of the Atlantic, will take me back to the Terror, which I think of as the only home I’ve ever had.
DOMINIQUE FORTIER was born in 1972. She holds a Ph.D. in literature from McGill University and is a respected editor and literary translator. On the Proper Use of Stars, her debut novel, was first published in Quebec in 2008 as Du bon usage des étoiles and was shortlisted for the French language Governor General’s Award for Fiction, the Prix des libraires du Québec, the Grand Prix littéraire Archambault, and the Prix Senghor. It is being adapted for the screen by Jean-Marc Vallée (C.R.A.Z.Y., The Young Victoria). Dominique lives in Montreal.
SHEILA FISCHMAN is the award-winning translator of some 150 contemporary novels from Quebec. In 2008 she was awarded the Molson Prize in the Arts. She is a Member of the Order of Canada and a chevalier de l'Ordre national du Québec. She lives in Montreal.
"Captivating. . . . Fortier’s clever, confident prose and Fischman’s flawless translation [shift] effortlessly between the comedy of manners of London society and the Gothic romance of the Artic wilderness. . . . The novel pulses with adventure and originality, and brims with promise for this gifted new voice in fiction."
— National Post
"Immensely entertaining and well-researched. . . . Fortier injects warm human blood, romance and beauty into the frigid, stark and heartbreaking old story we all thought we knew."
— Gazette (Montreal)
"Debut novelist Dominique Fortier – beautifully translated by Sheila Fischman – takes a new approach [to the Franklin story]: She chooses elegance . . ."
— Toronto Star
"Rich [and] clever. . . . [The novel] is poetic and elegiac about the lost and those left behind."
— Winnipeg Free Press
"Told in utterly original fashion, a historical novel with wit and fascination. Fans of Arctic literature will not want to pass on this one."
— SunTimes (Owen Sound)
"[Fortier’s] first novel is a shimmering hall of mirrors in which the Northwest passage relects dreams of glory that will be fatally shattered."
"With this uncommonly mature debut novel, Dominique Fortier strikes out for the furthest poles: for heroism, love, and plum pudding. Inspired by a story we thought we knew, she creates a unique and brilliant tale that navigates skilfully between dread and dream."
— Nicolas Dickner, author of Nikolski
"Wow! Double wow!" were my first words upon reading On the Proper Use of Stars. And what a great title! Especially when we understand its meaning, or rather when, all of a sudden, between two pages, it takes on its full significance and goes straight to the heart of those who allow themselves to be romantics. And to dream. Of love. Of adventure. A film is coming. Epic and Victorian! But first, to be read for the elegance of the style and the storytelling ability of this young writer, who made me want to sail away and explore . . . two worlds: one of ice, the other of lace; of tea, and salt water."
— Jean Marc-Vallée, director of The Young Victoria
"Enthralling. . . . The story leaves you both entertained and agonizingly aware of the tragedy that awaits."