Catholic novelist Ben Galeski had his first novel, 'Starvation Cove', published by Justin Press. The historical fiction explores how the last four survivors of the doomed Franklin Expedition, seen abandoning the ships in this artwork by Julius Von Payer, spent their final days at Nunavut’s Starvation Cove. Wikipedia

From one Catholic novelist to another

  • May 12, 2023

Acclaimed and prolific Canadian Catholic author Michael O’Brien once said, “If creators of Christian culture hope to produce work that will bear good fruit, we must draw our life from the true source — our living Saviour. He is real. He is present.”

Devoted readers of the 75-year-old Ottawa product’s rich gallery of novels, articles and lectures would affirm his love of Jesus Christ guided his writing instrument over the past three decades.

One of O’Brien’s ardent fans is fellow Catholic novelist Ben Galeski, a social studies and religion teacher at St. Joseph’s Collegiate in Brooks, Alta. To date, O’Brien has written 18 Catholic fiction novels, including the seven that constitute his Children of the Last Days series, and Galeski has dived into all of them enthusiastically.

“The first time I’ve ever read Catholic fiction was when I started reading his books,” said Galeski, 47. “My dad had some, and I just started reading one and became enthralled right from the beginning. I appreciated how the book’s characters, themes and worldview were unapologetically Catholic — and it was also just excellent writing.

“I felt evangelized sometimes when I read Michael O’Brien’s work. They had a deep impact on my faith,” added Galeski, an active parishioner at St. Mary’s Parish.

Galeski first became acquainted with O’Brien’s literature during his postsecondary years at the University of Lethbridge. During that same period, Galeski began contemplating the possibility of writing a book.

“I had this vision of looking at a bookshelf and seeing a spine with my name on it,” said Galeski, a father of five children with his wife, Rochelle. “I always wondered if I had it in me to tell a story the length of a novel that would be good enough for a publisher to take a chance on me.”

The dream became a reality for Galeski last summer.

Justin Press published his debut novel Starvation Cove, a historical fiction imagining how the last four survivors of the famed and doomed 1845 expedition, led by Sir John Franklin, could have spent their last days at Starvation Cove in Nunavut. This desolate bay on the Adelaide Peninsula was the southernmost point the survivors are known to have reached on their trek southward to find help after becoming stuck in the Arctic ice. 

All 129 men commissioned by the British Royal Navy to traverse through the last uncharted sections of the Northwest Passage in the Canadian Arctic, a quest envisioned to glorify and enrich the British Empire, died through a combination of disease, starvation, accidental poisoning and the hostile terrain.

One of Galeski’s history professors assigned a book study project. He was unfamiliar with any of the novels on the list, but he was intrigued by Frozen in Time: The Fate of the Franklin Expedition by Owen Beattie and John Gieger. The book chronicled the history of the doomed expedition and told of the anthropological and archeological work both men did by exhuming the graves of the men who died early during the journey.

“Nobody survived, and not much is known about what exactly happened even though we are getting a little bit more knowledge now,” said Galeski. “The ships were never found then, though they have been found recently. There is such drama, adventure and sadness in this story that it captured my imagination.”

The sunken wreck of the HMS Erebus was located in September 2014 during the Canadian Victoria Strait expedition. Two years later, the Arctic Research Foundation announced the HMS Terror was discovered in Nunavut’s Terror Bay.

Thoughts lingered in Galeski’s head about the harrowing drama and brutal suffering these men endured before perishing. As the world was transitioning out of the COVID-19 pandemic, the timing felt right for Galeski to meet the challenge he set for himself of becoming a novelist. He had recently transitioned into full-time teaching after years of double duty as a teacher and school principal.

The personalities of four St. Joseph’s colleagues informed the characterization of the expedition survivors Galeski chronicled in Starvation Cove. Beyond writing a gripping tale of drama and suspense, he was keen on imbuing each character with a powerful inner life.

“I wanted to write about what was going through their minds,” said Galeski. “I wanted to know how they were facing death. What was their relationship with God?”

He also thought of the storytelling in 2007 book The Shack, written by William P. Young, which chronicles a grief-stricken man’s encounter and conversation with God.

“That idea always struck me as powerful,” said Galeski. “I thought if I could sit down and ask God questions, what would be the kind of questions I would ask Him? And if I was struggling with my faith, what questions would I ask God? That is kind of what happens at the end of the book.

“The main character in Starvation Cove is quite dispirited by the suffering he sees around him throughout his entire life, and yet at the end, he is given hope as God comes to him and answers some of his questions, showing him he was never alone and that there is always room for hope.”

Galeski said he was not alone when he was writing this novel. He felt God’s presence.

“I felt this great feeling of hope and joy as I wrote it. I hope people who read it enjoyed the story, and maybe it caused them to think about issues of faith as well.

“Fiction is a way to evangelize. I was evangelized by it through reading Michael O’Brien’s work, and now I am very grateful Justin Press is giving me the opportunity to evangelize through my books.”

Galeski elaborated on why fiction could potentially reach young and old Christians who do not embrace other forms of evangelization.

“You think of the best homilies you have ever heard in church, it is when the priest is weaving a story, and the story has a message. The best presenters are storytellers. There is something about storytelling that is just profoundly powerful when it comes to teaching.”

Justin Press will unveil Galeski’s second novel, The Good Heart, later this year. This novel will depict a young rancher from southern Alberta and his experience during the last 100 days of the First World War and his transition back into civilian life. 

“You are going to learn about southern Alberta as it was around 100-110 years ago,” teased Galeski. “The main character is Catholic. Much of the story is about him trying to hold onto himself and the lines between right and wrong. And how do you hold onto that amid so much destruction and inhumanity?” 

Please support The Catholic Register

Unlike many media companies, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our website. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith-based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.