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86Victorian Review Ian Bunyan, Jenni Calder, Dale Idiens and Bryce Wilson. No Ordinary Journey: John Rae, Arctic Explorer 1813-1893. Edinburgh and Montreal: Co-published by the National Museums of Scotland and McGill-Queen's University Press, 1993. xi + 116. $42.95 CDN (cloth); $19.95 CDN (paper). Published to mark the centenary of the death of Dr. John Rae, this book is the tale of an enigmatic and superbly versatile Victorian explorer. It chronicles the life of an Orkneyman who served variously as a frontier surgeon, the Chief Trader of the Hudson's Bay Company, and a professional explorer. In preparing this volume (to accompany a museum exhibition of the same name) the four authors have isolated a number of fundamental themes in the life of John Rae. Each of the five chapters is an independent essay by one of the authors and focuses upon a specific facet of his life and times. As the authors are quick to note, the name of Rae, while commonly associated with the 1854 discovery of the fate of the doomed Arctic expedition led by Sir John Franklin, sadly arises less frequently as that of an extraordinary adventurer and courageous traveller. That Rae was the first white man to over-winter on the Arctic coastline, and was perhaps the greatest European surveyor of the north coast of Canada, are facts diat may well be less well known about a man who seemingly thrived in the wilderness. However, beyond the realm of a biography, this book is also a qualified account of the heroic age of British polar exploration. Finally, it is a discussion of the underlying sentiments and ethics behind an age popularly consumed with intrepid exploration and intense nationalism. John Rae's biography itself reads much like a Victorian adventure novel; and the first three chapters leave the reader with the sense that had the exploits of Rae not been documented in the newspapers of the day, they might well have appeared as caricatures in fictional form elsewhere. Raised in the relative security of upper class privilege, he instead chose to spend his youth building confidence and self-reliance in the rugged outdoors available to him in Orkney. As a young man he gained a pragmatism typical of his age, and possessed an avowed dislike of inactivity. By accident of birth, Rae (joining two of his brothers) amply filled the criteria of a Hudson's Bay Company employee: in die nineteenth century, three of four Company servants hailed from the islands of Scotland. Initially recruited as a surgeon, he quickly proved himself as a skilled traveller and explorer — once travelling through die Central Arctic on foot, he covered 1,060 miles in thirty nine days. On another occasion he trekked 1,200 miles on snowshoes, prompting the novelist R.M. Ballantyne to note that Rae ". . . was very muscular and Reviews87 active, full of animal spirits ... he was considered by those who knew him well, to be one of the best snow-shoe walkers in the service [of the Hudson's Bay Company], was also an excellent rifle-shot, and could stand an immense amount of fatigue" (48). For twenty years midcentury , Rae ventured throughout the Canadian Arctic, surveying the land, collecting natural history samples, and documenting the lives of native people he encountered. Rae was not only a skilled Arctic adventurer, but a competent naturalist with considerable scientific curiosity. He was perhaps the first serious European ethnographer of the Inuit. From throughout British North America he collected untold specimens and artifacts which remain housed in the Natural History Museum in London, the University of Edinburgh, and the National Museums of Scotland. A near archetypal Victorian Scot, he was once described as possessing "talent, probity and honour", and was very much of a man of unceasing effort, personal enterprise and rugged individuality. Like his contemporaries, Rae's exploits were eagerly met in Britain with popular approval and anticipation by an audience craving tales of heroism and noble struggle in so foreboding a setting as the Arctic. Yet, unlike his colleagues, but much to his credit, none of his expedition companions ever suffered from serious malnutrition or scurvy while under his supervision despite living...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 86-89
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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