- Barbara Kelcey (Author)
Alone in Silence: European Women in the Canadian North before 1940. McGill-Queen's University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- William Barr (Editor)
From Barrow to Boothia : The Arctic Journal of Chief Factor Peter Warren Dease, 1836-1839. McGill-Queen's University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- William Fiennes (Author)
The Snow Geese: : A Story of Home. Random House (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Sherrill Grace
Here I am again reviewing three new books about the Canadian North. The books, however, keep coming, and I keep agreeing to read them and write about them because the North, with the spell it casts over our individual and collective imagination, persists. This time that spell reaches out to us from the early nineteenth century and catches up with us in 2002. This time most of the voices telling us their northern stories are visitors, Englishmen or Scots following a romantic dream to the Canadian Arctic or non-Native and European women travelling to the Arctic with husbands, or the missions, or for other professional and personal reasons. In every case, however, the stories are deeply personal, autobiographical, private; the North does that— draws out this narrative of self-discovery from those who go there and survive to tell their tales.
The most scholarly of these books is Barr’s annotated edition of Peter Dease’s journal. Barr is an expert on the North, and he brings that knowledge to bear in the publication of this document. The journal itself is superbly annotated; the introductions are judicious and helpful; the biographies at the end are essential guides, a who-was-who in the HBC of the period. However, the purpose behind this publication is more personal and moving. Peter Dease co-led a major expedition to the Arctic with Thomas Simpson, a young relative of George Simpson, the HBC governor-in-chief in North America and a towering figure in his own right. Historians have seen young Simpson as the real leader, and successful cartographer, of the mission to map uncharted expanses of the Arctic coast, but this interpretation is largely of Simpson’s making; Barr is setting the record straight, much as Ken McGoogan does, in Fatal Passage, for the maligned John Rae. Through Barr’s deft editing and the inclusion of Simpson’s letters, it quickly becomes clear that Simpson was arrogant, racist, vain, bad-tempered and wildly ambitious. He was also an insufferable prig, quick to damn the writing of others while pontificating and, as Barr notes, garbling a passage from Byron in an attempt to sound clever. Moreover, in his letters Simpson casts aspersions on Dease and insists that he alone is the hero of the expedition. Dease’s journals—factual, modest, fair, and informative—tell a different story; nowhere does Dease claim things for himself, and nowhere does he criticise Simpson. In short, Barr allows Simpson to damn himself and Dease to emerge as the intrepid, loyal, highly competent man he was.
Alone in Silenceis also a deeply scholarly work, but what I especially appreciate is Kelcey’s emphasis on gender. It is commonplace to assume that the North was no place for a woman and that no white women ventured there or, if they did, they could not stick it out. Through careful analysis of women’s diaries, letters, and actual publications, Kelcey gives this story the lie. She presents the stories of numerous women who lived, worked, and travelled across the Arctic and sub-Arctic, from the famous wives of missionaries like Charlotte Bompas or the Grey Nuns, who travelled by land from St Boniface to Fort Providence to bring their mission to the Dene, to little- known figures like the artist Kathleen Shackleton or the nurse Helen Snowden.
Throughout, Kelcey is careful to situate her women in their cultural contexts, which means that she does not blame them for their views but tries to understand them, as much as possible, on their own terms. I found much new information here, especially in the chapters about professional women, and the only absence I regret is that of Mina Benson Hubbard, who successfully crossed Labrador in 1905.
Fiennes’s book is the most personal and, for me, the least interesting. The book is about his pilgrimage, following the migration of snow geese from their southern wintering grounds in Texas, north, by stages, to their Arctic home, where they breed, raise their young and fatten up before fleeing the winters on the two-thousand-mile flight south. Embedded in his narrative are the stories of several people he meets along the way, but few of these stories hold much intrinsic interest. His narrative also includes summaries of and quotations from numerous scientific stud- ies of birds and their migratory, navigational equipment. But the key intertext, the book that together with a serious illness sent Fiennes on his wild goose chase, is Paul Gallico’s classic novella The Snow Goose. Unfortunately, however, for the reader who knows Gallico’s story, Fiennes’ pales by comparison.
Ultimately, this book is about home—the snow geese make their home in the Arctic, but for Fiennes, always the Englishman, home is England and his parents’ house; home is where his heart is, and his long journey is a discovery as much of home as it is of the birds, the Inuit, the Muskeg Express, or the long trek North. Kelcey’s women also long for home, but for them home is often a complex attempt to make something familiar from minimal supplies in totally unfamiliar and unforgiving surroundings. Those women travellers— Shackleton, Cameron, Hutchison and the others—always knew they would be returning south or home to Great Britain. For Dease and the HBC men, however, home scarcely enters the picture, unless, as in Simpson’s case, in longings for the comforts of his mother’s hearth. The contrast between the men’s world and the women’s could hardly be more dramatic, and yet for all the genuine respect due to Dease (and to Simpson, despite his faults) as much respect, admiration and praise is due Kelcey’s women. Their challenge was to face down the assumption that they were mere add-ons to the masculine enterprises of trade, missions, education and health care. Not only did they have to survive like the men, but they also had to chart feminine parameters within which to carve out their contribution, a contribution that, whatever we might say today about its ethics, was major.
- Testifying to the Invisible by Manuela Constantino
Books reviewed: Telling to Live: : Latina Feminist Testimonios by The Latina Feminist Group and Rescued Images: Memories of a Childhood in Hiding by Ruth Jacobsen
- Women's Pages: Reconfiguring Canadian Women in Print Culture by Cecily Devereux
Books reviewed: The Woman's Page: Journalism and Rhetoric in Early Canada by Janice Fiamengo and Editing Modernity: Women and Little-Magazine Cultures in Canada, 1916-1956 by Dean J. Irvine
- Gabrial's Lowry by Miguel Mota
Books reviewed: Inside the Volcano: My Life with Malcolm Lowry by Jan Gabriel
- Vigour and Voice by Tanis Macdonald
Books reviewed: From Old Woman to Older Woman: Contemporary Culture and Women's Narratives by Sally Chivers and Voices Made Flesh: Performing Women's Autobiography by M. Heather Carver, Lynn C. Miller, and Jacqueline Taylor
- Legitimate Children by Craig Howes
Books reviewed: Teaching Life Writing Texts by Miriam Fuchs and Craig Howes
MLA: Grace, Sherrill. Discovering North/Self. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 19 June 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #178 (Autumn 2003), Archives and History. (pg. 98 - 99)
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