The race to the top of the world

A young man's search for himself takes him into the contentious quest for the North Pole

Some historical novels want to be histories, and some want to be novels, but the best authors succeed however they cast the foreground and background. For instance, in Kevin Baker's "Paradise Alley" (reviewed Oct. 17), the fiery riots of 1863 take center stage, ably assisted by a stellar supporting cast of characters.

Though no less devoted to the past, Wayne Johnston takes a different approach in "The Navigator of New York." Here, the Newfoundland author keeps his attention focused on a precocious young man and uses history – the race for the North Pole – as a stunning backdrop to his hero's personal search. (In 1999, Johnston employed a similar method for "The Colony of Unrequited Dreams," a novel about Newfoundland's first premier.)

Devlin Stead tells the sad story of how his father abandoned them soon after the family began. At first, Dr. Stead left on the charitable pretense of bringing medical care to poor Eskimos. Then, he asked his wife to be patient while he devoted himself to the grand quest for the North Pole, which so obsessed the early 20th century. As a member of Lt. Robert Peary's legendry team, he participated in some celebrated near-successes. (History buffs will appreciate how cleverly Johnston splices fictional characters into real-life events.)

Despairing of her loneliness, Devlin's mother drowned herself in the sea; some time later, his father wandered away from Peary's camp in northern Greenland and was presumed dead.

Since then, Devlin has been well cared for by a devoted aunt and barely tolerated by a chilly uncle who finds his presence a constant annoyance. To the people of St. John, Newfoundland, Devlin is a dark symbol of family tragedy, a genetic time bomb sure to self-destruct some day just as his parents did. Isolated by this cloud of ignominy and smothered by his aunt's love, he develops – as you might expect – into a rather contemplative, lonely young man.

The novels he reads aloud with his aunt every night provide his only real experience of the world, which endows his own narrative with a sonorous Victorian voice and a penchant for analysis that's sometimes comically precise. In a typical example, he describes an acquaintance this way: "His were the eyes of a man humbly and indulgently resigned to the loneliness of greatness, a man who, though he knew he would never meet his equal, had a gentle, all-forgiving view of humankind. But at the same time, there was that barely perceptible look of amused disdain, a universal dissuasiveness, an inclination to regard all things, himself included, as ultimately inconsequential." You know, those kind of eyes.

Plenty of people will find this hard going and prefer Kevin Baker's breathless description of the riots that consumed New York City. But there are deep riches here for readers with a taste for adventure who appreciate the careful parsing of thoughts and motives in the manner of Hawthorne or James.

In the darkest hour of Devlin's teenage loneliness, he receives his first secret note from Dr. Frederick Cook, Lt. Peary's real-life arch nemesis. The letter contains enough warnings and preconditions to make anyone suspicious, but it plays on Devlin's deepest needs, and soon he lives only for Cook's infrequent letters. Finally, when he can resist no longer, Devlin violates the conditions of their correspondence, runs away to New York, and presents himself at Cook's door with great expectations. But Dickens's Pip had it easy compared to the reincarnations and lurid revelations Johnston throws at Devlin.

Cook immediately adopts him as an assistant and fires the boy's imagination with his own passions. "Whoever reaches the pole first will do so in the name of humankind," Devlin remembers him saying, "and cause a worldwide enlivenment of spirit, wonder, awe, and fellowship." For Devlin, awe has already arrived. As quickly as possible, Cook teaches him everything he knows about exploring, and as slowly as possible, he teaches him everything he knows about his dead parents.

While dealing with these family skeletons, Devlin must also enter the internecine battle that rages among explorers. And as a member of Cook's cash-hungry team, he must support the facade of optimism that keeps donations flowing to these impossible quests for the North Pole.

"The Navigator" wends through some truly extraordinary episodes, above and below the tree line. One of the book's greatest scenes shows Cook's attempt to "rescue" Peary and his wife from a stalled expedition. Physically wasted and mentally unbalanced on this frozen wasteland, Peary refuses to leave his tent and Cook refuses to let himself be tagged as the man who kept Peary from reaching the top of the world.

The standoff continues for several blank weeks that demonstrate who really had the endurance among these fanatics: their wives. With an icy stare or a chilly sigh, Johnston captures the melted hopes and dreams of these women lashed to celebrated heroes who are never home, never productive, never really honest with anyone.

The New York society parties, drawn here with all the extravagance and flattery lavished on brave explorers, seem more foreign and inscrutable to Devlin than anything he sees in the land of prehistoric ice. What's more, for the first time in his life, "the odd Stead boy" finds himself the subject of curiosity that assumes the best about him instead of the worst.

Johnston's ironic treatment of his hero's rise from infamy to fame nicely calls into question the terms of both appraisals. Indeed, the public's attention seems no more fixed than the ever-changing landscape of ice that shifts and drifts over the North Pole. Even as it follows Devlin's exploration of his own values, "The Navigator" provides a fascinating map of early 20th-century aspirations.

"To Dr. Cook and all the others who wrote about it," Devlin thinks, "no greater life could be imagined than that of an explorer." But fortunately, despite his wide-eyed naiveté, his moral imagination is deeper than Cook's grandiose dreams or Peary's cruel determination.

By the time he's finished describing this remarkable adventure, Johnston has braved the coldest spot on earth but delivered us to a place of genuine warmth.

• Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments about the book section to

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