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The Arctic Grail: The Quest for the North West Passage and the North Pole, 1818-1909

The Arctic Grail: The Quest for the North West Passage and the North Pole, 1818-1909. Pierre Berton. Viking, New York, 1988. 672 pages, illustrations, maps, bibliography. $24.95.

Pierre Berton, Canada’s sixty-eight-year-old popular historian, brings history to life and portrays the conquest of the lands and seas beyond the Canadian North in this carefully-researched book.

It would be niggling to find flaws in this delightful opus because, despite a few minor inaccuracies, this book is the finest piece of Arctic literature that I have read. Berton places the explorers—many of whose personal names are on landmarks all about the polar regions—in the contest of their times, noting their foibles, strengths and weaknesses, virtues and vices. From Sir John Barrow, the bigoted British bureaucrat who never went near the north, to the best analysis I’ve read on the celebrated Cook-Peary controversy, this book is in keeping with the fine yarn-spinning that we have come to expect of Berton.

Several of the Arctic explorers mentioned in this opus were founding members of The American Alpine Club and their achievements well known. But one of Berton’s more noteworthy accomplishments is the credit he gives to the “heathen ” Innuit, whose labors and assistance brought success to the few explorers wise enough to recognize their talent.

Quite a story—well written and great reading.

William L. Putnam