Friday, June 6, 2008

Who look in stove

It is a hundred years today since the birth of Edgar Vernon Christian (6 June 1908), a British teenager who followed his dream (and possibly his love too) to a tragic death in Canada’s far north. On an expedition into the Barren Lands, along the Thelon River, Christian and two older companions died of starvation in 1927. Two years later, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police found Christian’s diary in the cabin where the men had died.

The ill-fated expedition to Canada’s far north was mounted by Jack Hornby, a wealthy British aristocrat in his mid 40s, who had emigrated to Canada as a young man. He took with him two inexperienced companions. Harold Adlard, the older of the two, was a 27 year old would-be British explorer Hornby had met in Canada. The younger was Christian, Hornby’s second cousin, who he’d encountered on returning to England for his father’s funeral. Christian, it seems, begged Hornby to let him join an expedition. In the spring of 1926, the three set off to the Barren Lands (or Grounds), the vast tundra area in northern Canada, where Hornby planned to show it was possible to survive by feeding on caribou. However, it seems, Hornby’s party missed the caribou migration, and so had to spend winter without adequate food.

In 1928, the bodies of three men were discovered by prospectors in the Thelon region; a year later the Canadian police mounted an investigation. They found the cabin where the men had died. On a stove in the cabin was a note saying ‘WHO LOOK IN STOVE’, and inside the stove was Christian’s diary and a letter to his parents. The investigation, and the diary, made clear that the three men had died of starvation, first Hornby, then Adlard two weeks later, and then Christian. Christian’s last diary entry was dated 1 June 1927: ‘9 a.m. Weaker than ever. Have eaten all I can. Have food on hand but heart peatering [?] Sunshine is bright now. See if that does any good to me if I get out and bring in wood to make fire. Make preparations now.Got out, too weak and all in now. Left things late.’

Enrique Ramirez , a PhD student at Princeton University, gives a good account of the expedition on his website, and says of the diary that ‘[Christian’s] clipped, pithy style is matter-of-fact, as if he were protecting future readers from the grisly details of starvation. Death was a lonely and personal business, and he only wanted to present a bare minimum of details.’

Even more details about the tragedy and especially about the three men can be found on the Cowboy Song website, where the author (possibly Alan Miller) suggests that there was more than a hint of homosexuality in the relationship between the cousins. He suspects some of the evidence may have been suppressed or destroyed. He says, for example, that whole pages may have been torn out from the diary, and that some passages from Christian’s letters, with potential homosexual significance, were supressed in early versions of the tragic story.

I can find no extracts from Christian’s diary on the internet (apart from that quoted above). There are several books and a play, though, about the tragedy which rely heavily on the diary. In 1937, J Murray published Unflinching: A Diary of Tragic Adventure; in 1980, Oberon Press published Death in the Barren Ground; and most recently Viking, in 2001, published Cold Burial. The 1993 play Who Look in Stove by Lawrence Jeffery touches on the homosexual theme, the Cowboy Song website says.

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