This book also explores the 19th century fascination with the Arctic as a genuine scientific and adventurous pursuit. In this particular voyage, the lead protagonist, Erasmus, who comes from a scientifically-minded family, but is of middling success and talent, is conscripted to join a voyage lead by his would-be brother-in-law to be a naturalist on the ship. This ship’s main goal is to seek out the remains of the ill-fated mission of Franklin whose two boats Erebus and Terror were lost in the pack ice of the North.
The novel begins primarily as a tale of that voyage. As the novel progresses, the voyage itself is narrated through the perspectives of the men on the ship, the women left behind, and the various newspaper accounts, alongside various materials from other voyages.
As the voyage breaks down, as it was bound to, and the men return, the novel shifts away from the actual voyage to the main character’s attempts to narrate the voyage. This last part of the novel deals with how the myriad reasons for the voyage clash with the myriad perspectives of what actually happened. And in this section the suspect scientific motivations are put alongside the equally suspect discovery motivations, and it becomes clear that the whole business is dubious.
There’s a nicely little devastating moment at the end where the Civil War seems to “rescue” the men who are looking to go on missions like this from themselves, and certainly rescue the poor “Esquimeaux” from less than profitable interactions with them as well.