The story of Sir John Franklin’s doomed 19th-century expedition in search of the Northwest Passage is full of mysteries. The last thing novelist Gregory Spatz wanted to do was solve any of them.
Spatz – whose new novel, “Inukshuk,” winds a modern tale around the Franklin expedition – is less interested in the easy answer than the continually deepening question. The expedition provides plenty of those, given that everyone involved died of causes that are still mostly guessed at.
“That’s what appealed to me about the story,” said Spatz. “There is no answer, and there never will be. … It’s ultimately unknowable.”
Spatz is a Spokane author, professor and musician who’s having an awfully good year. His third novel – the title is a native word for stones arranged in a human form – will be launched with a reading Friday at Auntie’s Bookstore. His second collection of short stories, “Half as Happy,” is set for publication in January. He was the recipient of an NEA Fellowship in Literature this year – one of two Spokane writers, with Shann Ray, to earn that honor. He plays fiddle in Mighty Squirrel and the bluegrass band Jon Reischman and The Jaybirds. And he was named Artist of the Year by the Spokane Arts Commission in 2011.
“It’s been an awesome year for external validation,” said Spatz, a professor of fiction writing in the MFA program at Eastern Washington University. “But it’s been a terrible year as far as actually getting any work done, because I haven’t been writing. … I always tell my students that the external validation is good and it’s necessary, but the real reward is a good day’s work.”
At 48, Spatz – a former professor of mine and a friend – has lived through several examples of the limits and contradictions of professional success. His initial success publishing short stories accompanied a particularly trying time in his personal life, as his first marriage ended. A second wave of literary validation – publishing a story in The New Yorker, which is as good as it gets in the world of short fiction – came at a time when he found himself unable to attract a single job interview for a teaching position.
The ebb and flow of the artist’s life – the trials and satisfactions – are doubled for Spatz, who moves between music and literature. He’s written and played fiddle his whole adult life and sometimes felt a tension between the two.
“When I was younger I would think I’m eventually going to have to choose between these two things, and a couple of times I did actually choose,” he said – referring to short-lived efforts to give up music in pursuit of writing.
One of those times came when he moved to Spokane in the late 1990s to take a job as a visiting professor of creative writing – a job that eventually became permanent. He was teaching, finishing his second novel, “Fiddler’s Dream,” and hadn’t found other musicians locally to play with. He thought maybe he was finished with all that. Then he got a call from Jon Reischman – a well-known Canadian mandolin player who was putting together a touring band.
For several years now, Spatz has been playing fiddle and touring all over the world with the Jaybirds. He’s also a member of Mighty Squirrel, a Washington band that draws on a variety of folk and traditional acoustic forms. He formed the band with his wife, Caridwen Irvine-Spatz, who sings and plays fiddle, and other musicians.
“I’ve never toured or been as busy as a musician as I am now,” he said. “I ultimately decided I can’t choose.”
The subject of Spatz’s new novel has deep personal roots. The ill-fated explorer was Spatz’s great-grandmother’s uncle, and he grew up hearing about Franklin’s life. The failures of the expedition cast a long shadow with some of his relatives in England, who still won’t say the name out loud, Spatz said.
In 1845, the 59-year-old Franklin was given command of an English expedition to finish charting the Northwest Passage in the Canadian Arctic. Two ships departed, and after initial sightings they were never heard from again, at least back in England.
The journey was plagued by problems from the start – not the least of which were gross misunderstandings of the geography – and the ship became frozen in ice for several years at Victory Point off of King Island. All 129 crew members died, though it’s not known whether the cause was scurvy or botulism or lead poisoning or starvation or some combination. There was evidence of widespread cannibalism among explorers who abandoned the ships and set off across the ice.
“It’s all fascinating and tragic,” Spatz said.
For a long time, Spatz imagined he’d write about Franklin’s remarkable wife, Jane Franklin. A world traveler and political agitator to a degree that was rare for a woman of her time, Jane Franklin advocated for prisoners’ rights and improved education while her husband served as governor of Tasmania – the Australian island then known as Van Diemen’s Land. She later sponsored seven expeditions to find her husband or evidence of what happened to him, and the search for the lost explorers became a worldwide cause in its own right. A ballad written for Jane Franklin, “Lady Franklin’s Lament,” became popular; Spatz has recorded a version of it with Mighty Squirrel.
Eventually, though, Spatz’s novel took a different shape: He imagined a modern teenager and his father living outside Calgary, each hiding in separate imaginative obsessions. The son becomes fascinated, and eventually dangerously obsessed, with the expedition.
That place where the limits of history combine with the imagination – as a character imagines himself into the unknowable parts of the Franklin disaster – is what Spatz wanted to explore in the novel.
He researched the subject exhaustively but never set out with any desire to try to answer the question: What happened to the Franklin expedition? The power of the question lies in the elusiveness of the answer.
“The search for the ships continues – the actual ships,” Spatz said. “Every year, they think they’re going to find the ships. There are people out there right now looking for the ships. Because they disappeared. They sank.”
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter