Cascading to the Present

Reviewed by Beverley Haun

Barbara Mitchell’s biography of Philip Turnor cascades down to the present at the same time as it reaches back into the past. Mapmaker opens with the author discovering at a family reunion that she is the descendant of Turnor, who was born in Middlesex, England, and voyaged in 1778 to Rupert’s Land, the watershed that drains into Hudson Bay and James Bay. He arrived as the first inland surveyor for the Hudson’s Bay Company. Mitchell’s ancestral connection is not through Turnor’s English lineage; he had no children with his English spouse. It is instead through his son Joseph Turnor, born in 1782 to his Cree country wife, that Mitchell discovers her own Cree roots. What follows from these revelations is a highly readable, carefully researched account of Philip Turnor’s surveying and map-making life, interspersed with Mitchell’s journals of her own experience as she discovers her ancestor’s past in England and, most importantly, in Rupert’s Land. Mitchell practises a postmodern ease in the organization and narrative voices of her dual texts, a confident participation in the scholarly and family biography to be told to us and to be absorbed by her. In the process, she adds a fascinating perspective to the Canadian historical record.

Mitchell draws together a compelling narrative of Turnor’s surveying and survival experiences through her close reading of primary sources in the archives of the HBC. She establishes a sense of urgency to see his calculations completed and the subsequent maps created as she telegraphs Turnor’s frustration at the lack of appropriate supplies and men to carry out his surveying missions. English leather shoes are useless in the bush. Fine-gauge fishnets are essential. Surveying instruments are costly, in short supply, and several times lost in rapids. Turnor also emerges as generous in teaching and developing new talent. David Thompson and Peter Fidler were his protégés. When Turnor returns to England after his surveying, there are no longer journals for Mitchell to draw upon to recreate his experiences. However, his maps are still extant, preserved in the HBC archives. Mitchell describes those maps in great physical detail, creating the vicarious experience of each step in their preparation. The ten maps made by Turnor are celebrated to this day as models of accuracy. One forms the book’s exquisite endpapers.

Since the research material informing this biography was framed through the sensibilities of an eighteenth-century Englishman, there is very little reference to Turnor’s Cree wife. Mitchell, having only recently discovered her own Cree roots, is also unable to supply that Indigenous perspective in her journals. Her narrative ends with the appreciation that her lifelong self-identification as a British Canadian performs over her newer realization that she is also Cree. In her epilogue and her acknowledgements, she reaches out to her Cree heritage, stating simply, “I am listening.”

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