The novel begins with a news article, about a chronograph believed to have been lost with the Franklin expedition but discovered many years later, disguised as a Victorian carriage clock.
Minds of Winter offers readers a glimpse into then and now and times in-between. There are no overarching commentaries offered; one simply moves from one time and place into another. This reflects the belief that we are surrounded – and filled – with connections to history and story.
“It was only coincidence that brought them together. He felt again, just for an instant, the stab of grief and loss that had staggered him, a few weeks after the death of his mother, when Russian scientists announced that Anastasia’s DNA had been found in the ashes of her family. She had never been lost, would always be dead now. His mother too had once been a girl.”
There is something simultaneously comforting and jarring about this approach to the past, the idea that nothing lasts and everything lasts. Sometimes the connections between past and present in the narrative are obvious, other times more subtle.Sometimes there is a sense of being guided between them: a contemporary discovery of a historical source shifts to a historical scene which brings that time and place into the narrative directly. Other times, the links between segments are more general, thematic, with a shared mood or idea acting as a bridge.
The novel covers a vast amount of territory, literally and metaphorically. Historical figures and invented characters conspire. Questions are posed about what can be gleaned from the historical record and about the significance of gaps and losses.
What does it mean, for instance, that the chronograph is here now? Did someone actually survive the “fatal expedition” after all? What does that whole story mean if the ending is actually something else entirely?
Of another character, not Franklin, someone observes: “There was no mystery about his death. It was his life that was largely a blank space.”
Whereas with Franklin, the historical record might seem to capture the matters of importance in his life, it goes dark with his disappearance. There is no mystery about Franklin’s life (or, if there is, it’s not the type anyone seeks to solve); it is his death which is a blank space. His disappearance and the fate of the expedition continues to fascinate us in the present.
How are these mysteries to be solved then? Besides documents and photographs, some of the characters in Minds of Winter turn to maps (and there are several reproduced here, one a mere sketch, most professional reproductions).
“But a map was a map, a metaphor, full of judgements and choices and victories and regrets; a map was built on hacks and heuristics and mistakes and lies, cracks though which you might, just maybe, someday slip away.”
Maps are constructs, too. And particularly in isolated and inaccessible areas, their content cannot be readily verified. Like any other report, maps say as much about the cartographer as they do about the terrain.
There are many secrets in this story. Some average, like the ones which lurk in everyday lives, like the ordinary events which unfold behind an Irish family’s “good rooms”. Some extraordinary, like the immense loss of four-legged life in northern expeditions, the horses and dogs which died and were killed, dismissed as acceptable losses.
The northern setting is dramatic but not sentimentalized. The descriptive language is stark, focussed on extremes and patterns rather than details.
“The silence crashed over her like a cold wave. She settled back until she was leaning against the side of the car, the chill of the metal burning through her clothes. The stars were so fierce that she feared they might hurt her.”
A sense of vulnerability pervades the narrative, in its historical and present-day elements. In the past, Lady Franklin makes frequent and extensive efforts to discover her husband’s whereabouts. In the present, a character is looking for his missing brother, who was on another kind of discovery expedition (for information rather than colonization), and more broadly speaking, efforts are underway to reveal the remains of one of the original expedition’s ships (the Erebus, as the Terror has not yet been located).
Questions loom as to what drives exploration in the first place. The first historical segment is set in Van Diemen’s Land, freshly colonized by the English, and further exploration is anticipated but also matter-of-factly accepted.
Are we, as people, just as mysterious as the tiny lemming which a contemporary character holds in his hand, our motives just as driven and strange?
And what of this matter of perspective, which readers are afforded via a segment in the voice of an indigenous character, who also speaks of discovery, but discovery of New York City, given that what everyone else in the book is “discovering” is actually his homeland.
Here, we move from seals and birds, floes and waves, to ships and maps, the Navy and the Queen, and beyond, to planes and cell phones. The expanse in the story is about geography but also technology, history and story.
So many scenes which unfold are about the concrete contents (for instance, whether it would have been possible for someone to have overheard a particular conversation, relayed via telegraph, whether eavesdropping was theoretically possible) but also reflect a broader concern (for instance, how can we rely on what is preserved in history when the nature of even a single exchange cannot be fully known or understood).
“Only one person could follow it all. Two, if you counted himself.”
Then again, mabye it’s not about following. Perhaps we are simply meant to strike out on our own.
A single reader tramping off into the distance. Wondering about what awaits.
Less concerned about finding answers than about the process of discovery.
Minds of Winter’s superpower is its expansiveness.
Past Giller juries have recognized this kind of sprawl in the past, with books like Wayne Johnston’s The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, Timothy Findley’s Pilgrim, Ann-Marie MacDonald’s As the Crow Flies, and Michael Ondaatje’s Divisadero (shortlisted in 1998, 1999, 2003 and 2007 respectively). But Ed O’Louglin’s book is so expansive it feels like four such novels between just two covers, which suits a novel about the unexplored, about the North. This year’s jury values the idea of reading as a means of exploration and discovery, but they may select a book with a more tightly controlled scope.