I was exceptionally excited when the DHL-guy was ringing the doorbell and handed over the sandy brown mailbox: As I haven´t been ordering anything the last days but one single book, it was clear what it was containing. Since I had been made aware of the fact that Michael Palin has written another book I was excited, since I had known that it was to be a maritime story, I was keen on hold it in my hands at last. Now I have read through, and I must say, it´s a great book: “EREBUS – The Story of a Ship” by Michael Palin.
For those who don´t know Sir Michael Palin yet (and I am afraid there are some) let´s try to sum it up in one sentence. Michael is one of the Monthy Pynthons. He is great actor and a far greater storyteller. Since the Eighties he was travelling the world accompanied by a camera, mostly of the BBC, and his documentaries “Around the World in 80 Days”, “From Pole to Pole” or the re-enacted Hemingway´s Great Loop “Full Circle” have been succeeded to render absolute cult status. And now a book about the TERROR, what a great news!
Review of Michael Palin´s “EREBUS – The Story of a Ship”
The book comes as a thick, 322 page compendium. Mr. Palin, that´s for sure, spent a whole lot of time roaming the archives of the Admiralty, National Geographic Society and many more libraries, he travelled to the remote places and sceneries where EREBUS and her crew once landed. I was compelled by the sheer amount of researching work that must have gone into that book: Palin´s work is certainly not a leisurely written side-project, it was a multi-year long mission of painstaking research, of a meticulously puzzling together the bits and pieces. It is surely a true and wholesome scientific account. And even more than that, because, what I love about Palin, his fine sense of the comical, his short but powerful commentaries and his very British – but modern and very humanistic – view and judgement of things make this book a literary marvel.
On the other hand, it definitely lives up to it´s title. Where I – up until now – only new EREBUS and TERROR by their accomplishments during their fateful last journey into oblivion searching for the Northwest Passage Palin opens up a whole new universe of even more gripping and fantastic stories of these ships. In fact, EREBUS and TERROR did have a life before the doomed last expedition with Sir John Franklin! The Antarctic voyages which earned them their fame and some 40 years of rich naval history – that´s the true contribution of this book.
What I like and what I dislike about this book
And here we are, this is from my point of view what makes this book so valuable. In a way, Palin manages to draw a very different picture of the EREBUS and TERROR. I just knew the names by the accounts of their last expedition when Sir John Franklin, Captain Crozier and some 130 men froze and starved and died, the two ships disappeared and the mystery left by their deaths never to be solved. By telling the whole story and foremost the astonishing things those two ships, their men and the respective figures which later sailed into dissolution Michael Palin draws a more complete picture and kind of rehabilitates everything connected to these figures. In fact, there is nothing I disliked about the book: It is thoroughly researched, written well and very entertaining.
Most enthralling part of “EREBUS” by Michael Palin
A book containing a historical story is seldom “enthralling” since finding, listing and connecting facts of the past must inevitably read more like a diary or an account. But here´s the art of Michael Palin as he manages to not just list the events year by year, but to cite from letters and logs, paint vivid pictures by letting his fantasy reign freely (but without going too far) and by re-enacting some of the events simply by travelling to those places and describing them with his own words, some 160 years later.
This is the most enthralling thing about Michael Palin´s book: He has written a book that could very well serve as a role model for history books. If every book in school was made like this, I am sure, pupils would devour the stuff, dive into history, biology and even mathematics. I myself enjoyed every single page, astonished by the thoroughness of the research and the colourful – yet not overdramatizing – descriptions. “EREBUS – The Story of a Ship” opened up my eyes for the life of this vessel before the dramatic last act of her life and the lives of her crew. The book of course couldn´t solve the mystery that is still surrounding the last events, but it helped me surely to broaden my knowledge and to bring me so much closer to the men who went out to solve the greatest mystery of their times, only to become one by themselves.
Pictures of Michael Palin (c) by John Swannel with kind permission by TheMichaelPalin.com
Connected articles you may like to read:
“The Terror” – review of the Horror-Adventure series about the lost Franklin-expedition
Reading the Northwest-Passage classic by Cameron Dueck
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