Across the Top
Of the World

The Quest for the
Northwest Passage

James P. Delgado

When John Lennon was asked, "And how did you find America?" he replied, "We just turned left at Greenland." After the discovery of America, traders and merchants dutifully turned left at Greenland, but wanted to stop finding America all over the place. They wanted, instead, what came to be known as A Pasage to Cathaia.

They knew that a great fortune awaited anyone who could reach China without bumping into Florida or Atlantic City or, as bad, having to sail through the Strait of Magellan. As Sir Humphrey Gilbert wrote in 1576,

    It were the onely way for our princes, to possesse the wealthe of all the Easte parts (as they terme them) of the world, which is infinite.

Strange --- that between the Arctic to the north, and Tierra del Fuego to the south there should be no passage whatsoever. The very strangeness of it, we suspect, made them create a Northwest Passage in their heads --- a fiction that continues to this day.

Of course, the journey through the Arctic --- proven to be the coldest place on earth --- was fraught with horrors. So much so that, starting in 1576, with the journey of Martin Frobisher, the race was on...destroying fortunes, wrecking ships, killing sailors (or driving them mad). The stories that fill Across the Top of the World are enough to make one wonder what is it that drove these people...drove them to the ultimate Booby Prize.

It was all mapped by 1855. And the truth? Yes, Virginia --- there is a Northwest Passage; several of them as a matter of fact. And if you want to go to Cathay by way of the Passage, you're better off at home in England pinching the maid or tending the garden or sipping bitter down at the corner pub. At least you don't get frost-bite, scurvy or dead --- from the maid (or the pub).

As stated by one who had made the search, Johann Miertsching:

    the passages are without significance and useless for navigation as long as the climate in these parts is so severe and the sea covered with ice 50 to 60 feet thick.

Still, it was not all that different from alchemy. In the process of trying to convert dross to gold, all sorts of interesting discoveries were made. In the process of trying to find the Passage, all sorts of interesting geographical discoveries were made. There were immensely rich fisheries in those latitudes. There was also life atop them there wastes --- polar bears, musk ox, and various cuddly creatures who could be bludgeoned to death so their fur could be draped around women's shoulders when they went to see Tosca.

There were, too, flowers that popped out during the summer...a summer that usually lasts five minutes or so. There were also people who called themselves "The People" (that's what "Inuit" means). They didn't smell too good, washed their hair in their own piss, but they could cook up a fierce batch of blubber soup and whale eyeball soup that would knock your eyes out --- being the only soup in the world that looked back at you.

James Delgado, author of Across the Top of the World is Director of the Vancouver Maritime Museum. He is a terribly earnest writer, of the John Franklin was veteran of the Admiralty's first probe of the Artic in 1818 school, but it makes no difference --- there are several hundred paintings, drawings, sketches, maps, photographs and etchings of ship getting mushed in an awful ice floe like a bug in the rug. The illustrations make this one worth it, even if it costs thirty-five skins.

--- Cindy Wise


Kate Wheeler
(Houghton Mifflin)
We really tried with this one --- we really did. For there are some of us who have more than a passing affection for South America, and the culture of the Indians. It's the story of Maggie and husband Carson who drop everything to move to a mountain village in Peru, working for the Catholic charities, bringing medical care to the poor and the benighted. Interwoven with this is the story of Maggie's grandmother Althea who follows her eccentric husband around the world as he tries to come up with a theory to predict earthquakes.

When Mountains Walked has its moments, at least as far as we got. It brings the Shining Light revolutionary movement into focus, and there's a nice frieze of Althea imbibing some slightly narcotic tea that makes the whole room turn colorful. And we liked the Peruvian bus getting stuck in the mud --- which reminds us of one of those travel horror stories that the Los Angeles Times puts out every year.

Then there's poor Maggie, who knows squat about medicine, trying to save the life of a tiny babe who has, she thinks (but can't be too sure), pneumonia. She shoots the kid full of Rocephin, all the while thinking, "What if I kill it?" Many of us have been there before --- trying to figure out how to save another's life, and hoping we don't kill the poor bastard in the process.

But, after all is said and done, Wheeler's main problem is prolixity --- as if she was trying to do a Henry James in the sweaty valley heat of Piedra, Peru. It may have worked for the editors of Houghton Mifflin, and a couple of the critics --- including Peter Matthiessen --- but we found ourselves drifting off one too many times.

The sentence, by the way, that forced us to hang it up, once and for all, begins,

    Once she left, the places changed behind her, too. Even Texas. For example, Texan skies were the only skies on earth with a sense of humor...

Since the sky over Amarillo or Galveston never made us giggle, we knew, at that point, it was time to abandon ship.

Pages read: 110
Total number of pages: 374

--- Carlos Amantea

Scenes from
The End

The Last Days of
World War II in

Frank E. Manuel
Manuel was a thirty-four year old intelligence officer with the U. S. Army during the final days of WWII. Because he was fluent in German, he was assigned the task of questioning prisoners to determine who had done what for the German war effort, and, most especially, those who had participated in running the concentration camps.

It is understandable that Manuel would feel murderous to those who had destroyed so many people, given double force because he is a Jew. Indeed, his anger at times creates a power in the writing that is near to poetry. After his questioning of the former commandant of the Oranienburg concentration camp, he ruminates:

    An eye for an eye. A tooth for a tooth. But Holy Moses, he has not got eyes enough or teeth enough for the talion law. A pound of flesh! But his diabetic rotting body has not enough flesh on it even if we settled the debt for an ounce instead of a poound. Cut his life, but he has not got years enough, this stinking old wretch. Then vengeance upon his children and his children's children unto the fourth generations. But he is barren. This toothless, childless dog comes to have justice practiced upon him. Justice wants fresh young maidens and bronzed youths worthy of her blows.

At other times, Manuel's distaste for the Germans (and for their excuses) combined with his sarcastic writing --- "air force boys who had spend recent months polishing ack-ack equipment for Goering when they should have been learning to creep and crawl with a Panzerfaust" --- can take away much of the interest in what he has to tell us.

It's always a delicate balance when we are describing the vilest of the vile; a worthy author has to assume that you and I know how dispicable the bad guys. To be pissed off --- as all of us must when we consider those who tried to murder an entire peoples --- goes with the territory, but there are, we claim, other ways to write about the unspeakable.

One of the great books to come out of WWII, The Last of the Just, by Andre Schwarz-Bart, speaks to us not in hellish rage but in an agony that grows from the knowledge that these murders represented but yet another stage in centuries of oppression of the Jews.

--- Ignacio Schwartz

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