The best books on the Lost Franklin Expedition

Who am I?

I have been a Franklin geek for three decades and five of my fifty published novels and non-fiction books excavate the story of the greatest disaster in Arctic history. Reading Fitzjames’ letters for my first book introduced me to a friend I would have enjoyed going for a beer with and one of the greatest thrills of my life was waking one morning in September, 2014 to learn that the wreck of Fitzjames’ ship, Erebus, had been discovered. I am still excited to live in a time when the mystery might finally be solved—perhaps Fitzjames’ original journal lies amid the water-logged timbers off the shore where so many died.


I wrote...

North with Franklin: The Lost Journals of James Fitzjames

By John Wilson,

Book cover of North with Franklin: The Lost Journals of James Fitzjames

What is my book about?

Somewhere on a barren Arctic shore in the summer of 1849, knowing he was dying, a British Naval officer wrapped his journal in sailcloth and buried it beneath a lonely pile of frost-shattered stones. He was the last of the 129 doomed men of Sir John Franklin's lost Arctic expedition. His name was James Fitzjames and for four years he had carefully recorded the expedition's achievements, hopes, and, as things began to go horribly wrong, the descent into madness and eventual death of his closest friends. This is his journal.

Based upon extensive research and Fitzjames’ actual letters, North with Franklin is a novelized reconstruction of the journal that we know Fitzjames kept, but which was lost with the doomed explorers. Through his eyes, we see the horror and tragedy that killed the entire expedition and created the greatest mystery of Arctic Exploration. A fictional companion to the ongoing archaeological work on the recently discovered wrecks of the Erebus and Terror.

The books I picked & why

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Finding Franklin: The Untold Story of a 165-Year Search

By Russell A. Potter,

Book cover of Finding Franklin: The Untold Story of a 165-Year Search

Why this book?

Well illustrated and written in compelling and accessible prose, Finding Franklin is a wonderful, timely introduction to the expedition and to the extraordinary hold that the mystery of its disappearance has held on the Arctic imagination for more than a century-and-a-half. Potter is a leading expert on all things Franklin and has been intimately involved in the recent remarkable discoveries around King William Island. There are few better companions at this exciting time when it seems the answers to the mystery are at our fingertips.


Erebus: One Ship, Two Epic Voyages, and the Greatest Naval Mystery of All Time

By Michael Palin,

Book cover of Erebus: One Ship, Two Epic Voyages, and the Greatest Naval Mystery of All Time

Why this book?

Former Monty Python stalwart and accomplished travel writer, explorer, and presenter, Michael Palin, approaches the Franklin Mystery through the biography of one of the lost ships. Not only was Erebus John Franklin’s flagship but, along with the Terror, she circumnavigated Antarctica under James Ross between 1839 and 43. Using his travel writing skills, Palin takes the reader to Tasmania, the Falkland Islands, and the Canadian Arctic to sample the landscape and conditions faced by these early explorers and, in the process, gives the doomed ship as much personality as any of her illustrious crew.


Frozen in Time: The Fate of the Franklin Expedition

By Owen Beattie, John Geiger,

Book cover of Frozen in Time: The Fate of the Franklin Expedition

Why this book?

Whether you have read Frozen in Time or not, you have probably seen the startling photograph of John Torrington, a stoker on the Terror, whose body was preserved in the Arctic ice for 140 years. Torrington and two of his companions died early in the expedition and were buried with full honours on Beechey Island during the winter of 1845/6. In the early 1980s, Beattie a Canadian anthropologist led expeditions to exhume and autopsy the three men. The staggering state of preservation of the bodies, allowed Beattie to undertake detailed work, which included the discovery of high levels of lead in all three men. Beattie’s assertion that lead poisoning was the answer to the Franklin mystery has been questioned, but his work still fascinates after all these years.


James Fitzjames: The Mystery Man of the Franklin Expedition

By William Battersby,

Book cover of James Fitzjames: The Mystery Man of the Franklin Expedition

Why this book?

Although James Fitzjames left many letters little was known about his early childhood and family background until Battersby researched this biography. Fitzjames was a charismatic personality who won awards for bravely, led an expedition to survey a route through the Middle East and fought in China in the Opium War. He seemed destined for great things in the British Navy, but through it all he hid a dark secret about his parentage. Fitzjames’ letters are filled with humour, lively anecdotes and character sketches of his fellow officers. They inspired the novel, North with Franklin, and this book makes an entertaining companion to that work.


Unravelling the Franklin Mystery, 5: Inuit Testimony

By David C. Woodman,

Book cover of Unravelling the Franklin Mystery, 5: Inuit Testimony

Why this book?

Few of the early searchers for Franklin appreciated the value of the stories the local Inuit told about these strangers who had come to their land and died. Fortunately, some stories were written down and preserved and these, along with still circulating tales, proved crucial in the recent discoveries of the remarkably preserved wrecks of Erebus and Terror. Woodman painstakingly scoured archives collecting stories and fragments and painting a picture of the disaster much richer than the accepted theory. Unravelling the Franklin Mystery was also a major source of information for North with Franklin as well as being a strong reminder not to unthinkingly ignore stories different from our own.


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