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The Discovery of Slowness - Sten Nadolny, Ralph Freedman
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John Franklin was ten years old, and he was still so slow that he couldn't catch a ball.


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They fought their way across the crevasses opening in the ice plateau until they reached the cliff above the Dorthea. Deep down she hurled herself against the ice wall long since surrounded by the debris of her own masks and spars and one of her boats . . . The ship hardly moved from the spot. Or, at best, by inches. John divided them into two shifts and took his watch from his pocket. Each group laboured for ten minutes; then it was the other's turn. Any man who let go of the rope dropped to the ground as if unconscious; some of them vomited. Presumably the ship became heavier and heavier as the water poured in. John took all necessary steps to get the survivors out of the wreck.

"Two hours by now," Kirby panted, his face pale. "We've got to give up."

"He has no sense of time," Reid panted back. If he had had enough breath, he would have said more.

An hour later he could barely form even this first sentence in his mind. Talking was impossible for them all. During this time John pulled on the rope too, although this was usually not acceptable for an officer, but his bare arm was freezing.

All at once, the ship gave way and came along. Length by length she crept forward beneath the cliff. Now Buchan had the foresails cleared and unfurled as the Dorthea lay before the gap. The half-wrecked ship slouched into the inlet more like a saturated sponge than one of His Majesty's ships.

Saved! A single boat lost, but two ships saved and all the men well.

Back went over to John Franklin and said, "Sir, I apologize. We owe you our lives." . . . In place of a reply, John simply put his arm around Back's shoulders and embraced him.


So goes the tale of one of the most unusual and fascinating explorers, leaders, and individuals ever (as far as I can tell from this account), born 1786 in England, died 1847 during his second command of an Arctic voyage to navigate and chart the Northwest Passage. Along the way he fought naval battles, fell in love, married twice, and was appointed governor of Tasmania, then Van Dieman's island, a brutal British penal colony that he attempted to reform, and despite much resistance he left it a better place.

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Always for John Franklin there was resistance, often in the form of ice of one kind or another, be it a towering glacier or a flat expanse of frozen sea. But his core talents were patience and a keen eye, and in the process of honing these he found he could outlast most challengers and see his way through most crises.

He had amazing gifts of sight, visually and imaginatively. He thought in pictures more than words, and was not to be rushed when assessing what he saw and committing it to memory in geometric terms; the cumulative knowledge base proved invaluable when navigating many tight spots, be they terrifying or just tedious. Though sometimes accused of having no sense of time, it was in fact an acute awareness of time that made him a brilliant leader. Most exceptional was the compassion that tempered his brilliance -- not sentiment but an empathy born of insight. It also made him an attentive lover, though he was slow to make the first move.

John looked at her breathing body . . . "I feel like a sine curve; everything is constantly rising."

But soon he forgot geometry and realized instead that much can be made good in this world and that two human beings are enough to make it work. He saw a sun filling up the sky, which paradoxically was at the same time the sea and warmed him from below instead of from above. He heard Mary's voice.

"With you it's different," she said. "Most of them are too fast. When it gets to the point, it's already over."

"That's exactly what I've been thinking for some time," John answered, and he was happy because Mary made him feel well understood. . .Mary showed John that there is a language of touching and feeling. One could speak in it and answer in it. Any confusion was out of bounds. He learned a great deal that evening. Towards the end, he wanted to stay with Mary for good.


Being human, he did fail on occasion, and for a dismal while in the thick of his maritime career was shunned by a handful of powerful antagonists. But he waited them out and rebounded as Sir Franklin, gaining worldwide fame as a knighted Arctic explorer, which had little to do with self-promotion. Others loved and advocated for him, but his focus was always on the task at hand, the work he believed he was intended to do, which always included navigating the Northwest Passage.

I'll not give away the ending except to say that it involves his dramatic death, but I don't consider what I've shared a spoiler because he is a historical figure. Nadolny provides references at the end of this fictional account along with some notation on his elaborations as a novelist. And a fine novelist he is. The original is in German, and this was a Christmas gift from a German friend who loves the English translation almost as much as the original.

Everything about the way the story is told suits its protagonist and theme, including the slow beginning and the periodic shifts to more strictly biographical telling. Occasionally a passage borders on tedium, but it's just then that the narrative shifts in some way to restore the pacing. More often than not I couldn't put it down, and a couple of times woke up in the middle of the night thinking about the story and had to turn on the bedside light and read more before getting back to sleep.

In short, Bravo! I'm now hoping to see it on the big screen because it would make a great movie.