Book Review: The Navigator of New York by Wayne Johnston

Nothing so reminds you like the sea that the enemy of life is not death but loneliness.

For some reason, the names of the men who vied to reach the South Pole are far better known than those who competed to reach the North. I know about Scott and Amundsen and, of course, Shackleton, but if you’d asked me to name an Arctic explorer a few weeks ago the only one I would have come up with would have been Franklin (and he’s not exactly a success story).

The Navigator of New York tells a fictional tale of two historical figures – Frederick Cook and Robert Peary – who were in fierce competition to be the first (white) men to reach the North Pole. The story is told by Devlin Stead, a fictional character, beginning with his childhood in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His parents’ marriage is an unhappy one and his father effectively abandons Devlin and his mother in order to pursue Arctic exploration. Years later, Devlin begins to receive mysterious letters from Frederick Cook and so is prompted to leave Newfoundland and move to New York to meet and work with Cook.

The two men become partners (of a sort). Devlin is drawn into a society completely new to him and a world of rivalry. He accompanies Cook on his journey to the North Pole where his physical endurance and his loyalty to Cook is severely tested. Though the real test of that loyalty comes upon their return to civilization.

There are a number of important reveals in this novel and I don’t want to give too much away. This was where my major issue with the story lay though. The reveals all belong to Cook. From the first letter he sends to a teenaged Devlin to the climactic conversation that lays all bare between the two men, Cook holds all the information. Over and over again, Devlin is simply told the truth about his own life and history. He never discovers anything on his own and he never tries to. His loyalty to Cook is unwavering but by the end I found it hard to believe. If someone you trusted and had lived and worked with so closely kept telling you things – things he had known all along, mind – that completely rocked your world, wouldn’t you begin to doubt this person? Wouldn’t you question why they were withholding so much from you? It’s hard to say if this was Johnston’s intention but the end result was that Devlin seems a little simple. A sort of, “Bless his heart,” and I hope things work out for him but it makes for a weak protagonist.

In spite of this, the book is an enjoyable one. It’s well-written and the historical aspect is fascinating. Johnston does description well – whether it’s early Twentieth Century Manhattan or an Arctic outpost. Cook in particular is an interesting character to learn about. The rivalry between Cook and Peary seems straightforward, as portrayed by Johnston through Devlin’s eyes, but the final revelations do add some depth to a question that, to this day, doesn’t have a solid answer. Who made it to the North Pole first?

Next Week’s Review: My Secret Sister by Helen Edwards & Jenny Lee Smith

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