‘D’you believe in ghosts?’ Birdie says.
‘Not as such,’ he says. ‘But people have talked about strange things happening in here.’
So goes a bit of dialogue towards the end of Richard Pierce’s ‘Dead Men,’ a riveting novel that is part historical fiction, part love story. Without revealing anything about it’s end – which came as a complete surprise.
The story is rich, complex, and makes history fresh. The history here has to do with Captain R.F. Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the South Pole in 1912. In telling their story Pierce addresses what the discovery of his body, together with his two companions Henry Bowers and Edward Wilson, meant for a world obsessed with exploration and discovery. The love here has to do with building romance between Birdie Bowers, a woman named for Henry “Birdie” Bowers and Andrew Caird. Bowers, a painter is fascinated with the expedition and wants to find out just what happened to Scott and the others. She convinces Adam to join her on a trek to the Antarctic to find the explorers’ tent now buried deep beneath the ice.
Bowers and Caird are as strong a presence as are Scott, Roald Amundsen, who made it to the South Pole and returned, Scott’s widow Kathleen and Apsley-Cherry Garrard who later penned an account of the expedition called “The Worst Journey in the World.”
Pierce draws strong characters, in the living and the dead. At times the exchanges between Birdie, who fights falling in love with Andrew, remind me of those between Catherine and Henry in “A Farewell to Arms.” That’s not so much because of Pierce’s writing style, but more in the way the two characters relate to each other.
As an author of non-fiction history, the above passage and the two following spoke to me for several reasons. In my work to piece together the past – be it what happened when the first recorded meteorite fell in the United States, or what happened when Confederate soldiers decided to raid a Vermont town during the Civil War. In my research I often handle artifacts and letter. This is way ‘Dead Men’ draws you in and doesn’t let you go so quickly.
‘But everyone assumes that everything’s understood about what happened here all those years ago,’ she says.
‘I think you’d only be able to understand it if you’d actually been here at the time,’ Nev says. ‘Anything else is guesswork.’
This exchange, which occurs 240 pages into the novel, seemed as if Pierce was winking at the reader. Nev, who helps Birdie and Caird trace Scott’s steps, tells Birdie that it is impossible to truly understand what happened to Scott and the other three men in the tent unless you – the reader – had been there. But that is precisely what Pierce doest throughout this book. He is guessing, he is imagining. But he does so with a deft hand. Pierce makes the reader feel they are there in the tent with Scott as he, Wilson and Bowers struggle to stay alive. He makes readers feel they are there in the tent when Cherry finds their frozen bodies.
‘I know it doesn’t do to ascribe human qualities to something as inanimate as a little black book. But it has his last words in it. It breathed through his struggles with him, and it survived his death. It saw the bright Antarctic sun.’
Novels mean different things for different people. For me this passage was an apt description of what it’s like to handle letters a mother to her son just as he embarked on a scientific investigation that gave America a seat at the table with Europe. This passage described the letter I read from a Union soldier describing the composure of a Confederate solider on the eve of his execution. This passage described what it was like to handle letters from US Airmen interned in Switzerland during WW2 and the memos a certain notorious prison commandant penned. It is the feeling I get now when I handle documents and read testimony from Stutthof concentration camp survivors and survivors of the Wilhelm Gustloff.
To read “Dead Men” is to read a story that beautifully explores the power of the past, the power of words, and the power of exploration.