“Solomon Gursky” is an unexpectedly weird book, but one I would highly recommend to anyone with a taste for unique Franklin expedition fiction. As a novel, “Solomon Gursky” is part Franklin mystery, part Jewish family drama, and part critique of capitalist dynasty families. A lot of effort has been put into portraying the expedition accurately — Richler cites “Frozen in Time” by Owen Beattie as a primary influence — and a good number of the deviations (of which are many) don’t feel accidental, they feel intentional as part of building this alternate history where two Jewish conmen manage to finagle positions on the Franklin expedition.
The book is framed by a man named Moses Berger and his efforts to write a biography of the deceased Solomon Gursky, it’s something of an obsession, actually. This framing allows for the mysteries and secrets hidden by the Gursky family to unravel over the course of the book as we bounce between the points of view of various Gursky family members (there’s a helpful family tree in the front of the book); Moses himself; epistolary elements such as diaries and telegrams; and a variety of other important players. The same stories get told in different ways depending on who is doing the telling, which is very fun, and it’s done in such away that it never feels repetitive. Every time I got a detail that clarified a previous mystery or teased an answer I was vibrating with excitement. If you enjoy piecing together mysteries as you read you will find “Solomon Gursky” very satisfying.
While the Gursky family is Jewish and Judaism is important to the story, on the surface several characters could be read as anti-semitic stereotypes. For example, Ephraim Gursky is a notorious conman, and brothers Bernard, Solomon and Morrie establish themselves as capitalist alcohol barons who get their start selling bootleg alcohol during prohibition. Few of the characters in this book can be considered “good,” but from a Jewish author it becomes “these are complicated, difficult and sometimes awful people who are Jewish” rather than offensive stereotypes. A gentile author could not pull this book off, at all.
Anti-semitism, racism, sexism and homophobia come up throughout the book, from various characters and in a range of opinions. However, not every instance of prejudice can be explained as only coming from the characters. Two of the biggest issues I had were the portrayal of the Inuit, which runs stereotypical more often than not, and the existence of Lieutenant Norton — replacing one of the Erebus lieutenants — a minor character who is portrayed as a crossdresser, which was almost interesting when it was first teased, with a penchant for violence. Some of his actions could have been chalked up to lead poisoning etc. but it didn’t really land in my opinion.
The one thing I will say about Richler creating Franklin expedition OCs is that it doesn’t drag the names of real historical people through the mud, which is more than can be said of “The Terror” author Dan Simmons. Frankly, I saw a surprising amount of similarities between certain aspects of “Solomon Gursky” and “The Terror,” which made me wonder if Dimmons hadn’t read “Solomon Gursky” at some point. Unfortunately, any influence, if it is there at all, is limited to the all of the worst bits with none of the redeeming qualities of Richler’s writing.
I went into “Solomon Gursky” utterly blind, I knew “Jew on the Franklin expedition” as a premise and that was it, and it certainly is that, but it’s so much more too. Everything matters. “Solomon Gursky” is a big book with lots of characters and plots that are masterfully woven together. There are surprises around every corner, including the borderline magical realism presence of ravens as motif and harbinger, and a group of Jewish Inuit.
Some final warnings: Sex scenes, which are occasionally detailed in a way that make you wonder if the author didn’t have a fetish; plenty of nudity, both male and female; and some mentions of rape and suicide, but nothing explicit.
As I stated before, “Solomon Gursky” reaches some very weird depths, and is not without its share of problems, but I enjoyed it immensely and now I need everyone else to go read it so that I have someone to talk to about this frankly beautiful piece of insanity. The book seems to be out of print, but can be found from most used booksellers.