Readable and Charming

Reviewed by Misao Dean

The two volumes of The Travel Journals of Tappan Adney are charming books, filled with whimsical stories about animal behaviour, quick sketches of birds and wildlife, and honest observations of wilderness and Indigenous peoples in the New Brunswick of the 1890s. Adney, who is perhaps best known for his historic study of Indigenous watercraft, Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America (1964), was a self-taught naturalist, writer, and artist who first visited New Brunswick in 1887 at the age of nineteen, and over the next nine years documented his adventures hunting, fishing, and camping in the areas of the Tobique and Mamozekel Rivers in hand-written journals. In later life he transcribed these and added details and corrections; the resulting texts have been edited by C. Ted Behne, a retired writer and bark canoe builder, and reproduced in attractive paperback volumes including a generous selection of the original hand-drawn maps and sketches.

Adney was a strange duck. Like his contemporary Ernest Thompson Seton, he attempted to make a living as an amateur naturalist and illustrator at the very moment when these fields were professionalizing. Adney was a prodigy, achieving admission to the University of North Carolina at the tender age of thirteen, but he never completed a university degree. So Adney sold his stories and illustrations to magazines like Harper’s and Outing, capitalizing on the new popularity of stories that featured outdoor adventure and animal life. He met Charles G. D. Roberts and his brother Goodridge during Roberts’ tenure as a professor at King’s College in Windsor; this led to later friendships with Bliss Carman and Arthur Stringer during the 1890s, when Adney worked as a freelancer in New York. A trip to Alaska and the Yukon for Harper’s led to the publication of a successful book on the Klondike gold rush in 1900, on the strength of which Adney married his New Brunswick sweetheart and moved to Montreal. He continued his research in the fields of ethnography, Maliseet language, and bird and animal behaviour, at one time acting as a consultant on ethnology for the McCord Museum at McGill, but he was in debt and unable to complete the ambitious projects he imagined. His extensive research on Indigenous canoes and boats was completed and published after his death by Howard Chapelle.

The Travel Journals are written with an endearing simplicity and freshness. Adney recounts hunting and prospecting trips taken with a group of young men like himself, and gives in their own words stories about being treed by a moose, or lost a few hundred feet from a campsite, or chased around a campfire by a bear. He admits his initial fear of being left on his own in the woods, and sketches a mink that steals the remains of his fish dinner. He writes with respect about the Maliseet craftsman, Peter Joe, who taught him to make a canoe, and about members of the Bear family who assisted in his research into the Maliseet language. In this Adney’s Travel Journals contrast favourably with the travel writing of contemporaries like Seton and Theodore Roosevelt, who often seem pompous and condescending toward their “native guides.” The main limitation of this edition is its lack of academic bibliographic information; this is a book designed for readers of popular history, and academics will have to go to the original manuscripts for research purposes.

This review “Readable and Charming” originally appeared in Emerging Scholars 2. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 228-229 (Spring/Summer 2016): 227-228.

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