The Intrepid Life of George Back, Franklin's Lieutenant

by Peter Steele



307pp/$39.95/October 2003

The Man Who Mapped the Arctic
Cover by George Back

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Sir George Back (1796-1878) spent more than twenty years of his life exploring the frozen Northern reaches along the Arctic Ocean on a series of four expeditions, two of which he led.  In The Man Who Mapped the Arctic, Peter Steele endeavors to tell the story of this explorer and the land he helped open.

The book begins with a description of the five years a young Back lived as a prisoner of war during the Napoleonic Wars.  Basing in information on Back’s own recollections as well as those of other men who were held prisoner by the French, Steele presents a informative and detailed look at the treatment of British prisoners of war.  Unfortunately, this sets a high bar for the rest of the book which Steele doesn’t manage to meet.

The details of Back’s personality and actions is sketched in throughout the book, although never with as much detail as the reader might like.  Steele describes his subject’s arrogance, but fails to provide specific details of it.  Similarly, Back is described as getting under the skin of his commander, John Franklin, and the company’s doctor, Richardson, but Steele doesn’t provide any precise incidents or interactions which caused the feeling.  Steele also doesn’t adequately explain why men such as Richardson, Franklin and Back, who suffered such deprivations and tragedy on their first Arctic expedition, would willingly turn around and mount a second expedition only a couple of years later.

Described in the title as “the man who mapped the Arctic,” Back is shown covering much of the northern coast of the continent as well as significant portions of the interior, including the river which was renamed in his honor.  What isn’t described, however, is the methodology used by Back to map the region.  Back was also an artist, and Steele elected to include many of his sketches as either plates or chapter headings, however his maps are barely seen in the book.

In fact, the maps Steele does include, mostly at the beginning of the text, fall short.  They differ in scale and there is no overarching context for the various maps to show how they fit together.  Although their position at the beginning of the book makes them easy to find, it also means a reader must constantly be flipping back and forth through the book.  Including a chart showing the rough paths Back took on his four voyages of discovery would also have added value to the inclusion of the maps.

Although it is clear that Steele has spent time in the same Arctic that Back traveled through nearly two centuries ago, Steele does not manage to capture a feel for the land.  It isn’t clear when Back is traveling through mountains, forests, or over plains.  The darkness and cold he must have experienced never really leap from the page even as Steele is describing the expeditions’ methods of staving off the cold.  Because of this, The Man Who Mapped the Arctic doesn’t quite work as a travelogue, which is necessary for a biography of an explorer.

The period of time covered by Steele in The Man Who Mapped the Arctic is intriguing and Steele often manages to pull together a variety of interesting facts.  With a few exceptions, however, the Arctic of the 1820s and 1830s never fully comes alive and people Back came into contact with are often little more than names with a few traits attached to them.

Purchase this book in hardcover from Amazon Books.

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