Book Review: Frozen in Time – The Fate of The Franklin Expedition by Owen Beattie

The horrifying truth about a most terrifying historical event – the loss of the 129 men of the Franklin Expedition who perished in the Canadian Arctic in 1848.

I don’t read enough non-fiction, unfortunately. I always end up loving it when I do, and I try to always intersperse my reading with a few books here and there, but I think it’s a problem of there just being too many fiction books I want to read all the time. When I pick up something, I feel like I’m setting aside something else, and I hate that feeling.

I’m so glad I sat down with this book though. I’m an archaeologist by trade, and I’ve worked a few years in the Arctic myself (not Canada though), and before I left to go back to Europe the last time, a friend stopped me and gave me this. “You’ll enjoy this,” they said. “Promise you’ll read it cover to cover.”

Of course, I did. Both read it, and enjoyed it.

The book is part historical account of the Franklin Expedition itself, and part scientific discovery of the remains, as forensic anthropologist Dr. Owen Beattie attempts to uncover the truth about what happened to the 129 men. The expedition spent three years in the Canadian Arctic from 1845-48, before they all perished, and in 1981, Dr. Beattie set out to figure out how. Was it scurvy? Starvation? Disease? Or something… worse?

The historical account goes into a lot of elaborate details, starting all the way over in London with how the expedition itself was set in motion, planned, and manned. By the time we get stuck up in the Canadian Arctic we’re already heavily invested in this trip , and it’s almost twice as depressing knowing how fatally it is going to end.

Dr. Owen Beattie’s discovery of the remains of the men is a fascinating expedition in and of itself, because before the forensic anthropology can get started the remains have to be found. That’s not such a simple task – even with all the modern technology we have today (and the one Beattie had in ’81).

The forensic anthropology is perhaps the most exciting. Reading about how Beattie’s team had to dig through the permafrost, thaw the 130-year-old remains of British soldiers, and find ways to take samples and notes is awesome. I know how it feels on the body knowing that the largest extant land predator can show up any minute – and… Well, I won’t spoil anything.

The most fascinating thing however, was perhaps the discovery that Beattie wasn’t the first to perform forensic investigations on one of the bodies they dug up.

Of course, if you prefer the mystery of the expedition without all that archaeology and anthropology – and maybe you’re more of a fiction reader like myself, half of the time – there’s always The Terror by Dan Simmons, which I reviewed a while back. An incredibly detailed and haunting story about the Franklin Expedition – with a few artistic freedoms.

What’s your most recent non-fiction read? Do you have any favorites? Let me know in the comments!

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