U.S. writer discovers Alexander Mackenzie

The latest issue of Canada’s History finds me reviewing Disappointment River by American writer Brian Castner. The subtitle is Finding and Losing the Northwest
Passage and the publisher M
cClelland & Stewart. 

The clouds over the mountains to the west of the
Mackenzie River looked like “three enormous flying saucers descending on us.”
They “were layered, like plates or shelves, the sky behind nothing but black.
The temperature dropped twenty degrees.”

Author Brian Castner was retracing the 1789 journey of
fur trader Alexander Mackenzie to the Arctic coast. Castner and his paddling
companion scrambled ashore and erected their tent, but “the front hit like a
concussion, a wall of thickened menacing air. The tent recoiled as if struck,
the outer shell suddenly pummelled by wind and fat drops of rain. The whole
shelter was vibrating.”

The front stakes tore out, the tent collapsed, and the
two men found themselves trying to regroup while “soaked in the driving rain
and only half-dressed, boxers and no shirts.”

This is one of many vivid passages from the new book
Disappointment River. Castner is a skilled writer who, no mean feat, manages to
interweave the tale of his own adventure on the great river with what
history-buff Canadians regard as the familiar story of Mackenzie’s epochal

The writing is excellent. But this book feels
especially fresh because, while most historians treat fur-trading explorers in
either a British or a Canadian context, Castner brings an American perspective
to the table.

When was the last time you saw Washington Irving
quoted on the fur trade? Right. Yet Castner cites that nineteenth-century man of
letters three times. Castner does not ignore the Laurentian thesis — that
Canadian economic development came mainly from resource exploitation — or the
foundational nature of the fur trade, but he is more inclined to reference the
American Revolution or the 1760 capture of Detroit.

“In traditional American mythology,” he writes, “we
associate the West with opportunity, but the North is known for hardship. Their
conjunction — in the Northwest Passage, North West Company, Northwest
Territories — speaks to both ideas. You go north and west to test yourself, but
in pursuit of an objective.”

Castner mentions that, before leaving home, he read
widely in Canadian newspapers and books. And the paddler is acutely aware of
being a foreigner in a strange land. One of his companions makes a joke, he
writes, “in an exaggerated northern Wisconsin accent that came off as vaguely
Canadian.” He notes that one man he meets has “good looks that I’d call
All-American if he weren’t Canadian, born and bred in the North.”

Elsewhere, while driving northwest through rural
towns, Castner writes: “‘No wonder Canadians seem to be natural socialists and
praise collective effort,’ I thought. ‘Their land is too big, they too few.’”

Again, this is not off-putting but refreshing. Here’s
an American showing an interest in a landscape, a social reality, and a history
beyond the borders of the United States.

To read the rest click here and go to Canada’s History.

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