Saturday, July 21, 2012

Pierre Berton's "Prisoners of the North" (Steak Knives)

Pierre Berton recounts the scattered stories of five personalities bound forever to the land and sea of Canada's north with his usual gift for narrative and history.  After doing a lot of reading on Arctic and Antarctic exploration, I decided to pull this off the parents' shelf as another loan, to better understand what makes this part of the world so compelling for such characters.  I must admit to some modest form of this fascination myself, of course, and the stories here helped scratch that itch.

While I wont recount each of them here, Berton shares the stories of Joseph 'Klondike Joe' Boyle, Vilhjalmur Stefansson, Robert Service, Lady Jane Franklin, and John Hornby, each linked to the geographical history of our north in different ways.  I'll call out a few of them briefly, but the rest is up to you.

The story of Vilhjalmur Stefansson is one that I'll likely follow up on with the book 'The Last Voyage of the Karluk' (not that the stack isn't already getting taller) that provides a more comprehensive account of the fatal expedition and his role in the affair that saw the needless loss of a ship and many lives.

Lady Jane Franklin, the ever-vigilant widow of John Franklin, was adamant and effective in rallying rescue and search expeditions for her husband's doomed adventure years after he left in seeking the northwest passage.  [I've blogged about that history in my review of 'Resolute' here.]  While a tragic figure, she's an inspirational and heartening one in many ways.

Most engaging for me was the story of John Hornby.  Here's a character too unique for fiction, equal parts romantic and crazy person.  The romance is for the permafrost of Canada's north between Edmonton and Hudson's Bay.  His history leading up to his final visit to this part of the world is itself a fascinating one.  He insisted on living off the land with little supplies or support, existing on a razor's edge of uncertain game and scarce fuel for heat north of the tree line.  Taking one hapless documentarian/scientist with him in an effort to live off the land for a year led to very close calls with starvation, and insane behaviour that that made his companion rightly fear for his life almost daily.  

Inexplicably surviving this misadventure, he manages (after a time) to infect a young relative with thoughts of adventure and convinces him to join Hornby on another attempt at living off the land through a harsh winter and beyond.  Another comes along for the ride, and all three perish in an all-too foreseeable slow wind down to starvation.  Poorly kitted out (they had rifles for the non-present Caribou that were useless for killing the ample fowl in the area), and too long deferential on Hornby's obstinance, the trio come to an end many directly warned them of even as they set out.  A partially decomposed diary discovered in the stove in their simple hut provides an eerie catalogue of their experience and the final days for each.  Their deaths are ironic in too many ways to recount here; a common trait for stories of death and misadventure in the back country.  

Hornby, Christian and Adlard's graves.

Hornby and his compatriots' end called Yossi Ginsberg's 'Jungle' to mind (and Krakauer's 'Into the Wild' for that matter).  I wasn't blogging when I read Jungle, but it's a high-end Cadillac tale of a doomed trek into the amazon rainforest with some naive young travelers and a guide either in over his head or just plain crazy.  Both tales grip the reader tightly, even knowing the outcome ahead of time.

All around, I'd recommend 'Prisoners of the North' to others with a passion for arctic and northern history.  While some pieces of this collection were slow or certainly less 'exciting', all the personalities are interesting ones nonetheless, and it helps fill in some gaps in the history of northern Canada, which is always a good thing.

The author, and Canadian icon Pierre Berton.

1 comment:

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