Waltzing Mathinna

Wanting, Richard Flanagan, 2009

Author of several previous books on Tasmania (Van Diemen’s Land), Flanagan has structured his latest around several known historical events.


    Sir John Franklin, famed arctic explorer whose entire last expedition in 1845 to find the mythical Northwest Passage disappeared, was for several years governor (virtual king in Flanagan’s account) of Van Diemen’s Land from 1836-1843. He was unpopular with the other civil servants and was recalled by London.

Mathinna bock_mathinna

    A government policy including a head reward and white diseases was intended to eliminate the Aboriginal population from the island but the liberal Franklins adopted a young aboriginal girl, Mathinna, to raise as their own daughter (they were childless). Somehow Mathinna, still an adolescent, was left behind when the Franklins returned to London.

Charles Dickens dickens-writing

    When a report was published accusing the last Franklin party of cannibalism based on Eskimo eye witness accounts, Charles Dickens wrote a defense of the explorers arguing that Eskimo accounts could not be relied on (Flanagan, with mock understatement, says the Dickens piece today would be considered racist.) More recent discoveries have found that lead based solder was used to seal the newly invented canned food used by the expedition. Most of the expedition was believed to have suffered from lead poisoning which leads to madness and may have contributed to the cannibalism which is now widely believed to have happened.

From these known details, Flanagan constructs a short, very black, novel focusing in turn on the ambitious, fame seeking, Franklins, the tragic Mathinna (raped by John Franklin no less and left in a horrible, violent orphanage, she is killed at age 17.) and the fates of the few remaining Aborigines in Tasmania, and Charles Dickens, who after penning his defense of the Franklin party, writes a play about the last Franklin expedition, to be performed for charity with Dickens himself starring. During the run of the play, Dickens leaves his wife and falls in love with a young actress. Somehow, through the blackness, Flanagan always manages to be readable.

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