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magazine / oct12

October 2012 issue


BOOK REVIEWS

The Eastenders

MEMOIR
A Geography of Blood
Unearthing Memory from a Prairie Landscape
By Candace Savage
Greystone Books
224 pp.,
$26.95
hardcover
Eastend is a dusty little village tucked into the Frenchman River valley in the southwestern corner of Saskatchewan. On the horizon to the west lie the Cypress Hills, a cool, forested refuge from the Plains that for millennia were favoured camping and hunting grounds for the Blackfoot, Assiniboine, Cree and Sioux. Candace Savage is not the first writer to extract a non-fiction book from the story of tiny Eastend (population: 527), but A Geography of Blood is more sympathetic in tone and more ambitious in scope than Wolf Willow, the much-celebrated 1962 classic work by American novelist and natural history writer Wallace Stegner, in which he recounts a vivid slice of Eastend’s frontier history.

Savage’s book also excavates the past much more thoroughly. The author of some two dozen non-fiction books, she is one of Canada’s most accomplished natural history writers. What she uncovers in Eastend ranges from 75 million years of dinosaur life to 9,000 years of First Nations occupancy, the story of the Sioux in flight from the U.S. Cavalry, the arrival of the North West Mounted Police, Prime Minister John A. Macdonald’s brutal duplicity and the vibrancy and diversity of the plant and animal life in and around the village that has become her second home.

Like many writers before her, it was Stegner’s memory that first brought Savage to Eastend. The village’s Arts Council maintains Stegner’s family home as a retreat for writers. During her stay at the house, Savage became enchanted with the landscape and the quiet charms of village life. She eventually bought a small house down the street that became the base for her many explorations. (Disclosure: Candace and I met at a writer’s conference 15 years ago and became friends, and she once lent me her house in Eastend for a vacation.)

Up the hill from her bungalow is the village’s marquee attraction: a modern museum that holds the fossilized remains of one of the most complete Tyrannosaurus rex skeletons yet discovered. It was excavated from a nearby coulee that paleontologists call the “Supermarket of the Dinosaurs.” What Savage learned from her visits and subsequent interviews with museum staff is that fossils found in the area tell an almost unbroken story of “75 million years of vertebrate history.” From the age of the dinosaurs to their extinction 65 million years ago and the emergence of new life forms, fossils found around Eastend range from dinosaurs to the rhinos, camels, tiny bears and myriad other mammalian species that emerged in their wake.

The landscape around Eastend also bears the faintest traces of the earliest human occupancy. Stone circles reveal ancient tipi sites. And in a meadow in the Cypress Hills, Savage encountered archaeologists who have uncovered a campsite used continuously by aboriginal hunters for more than 9,000 years. Near the bottom of a seven-metre-deep pit, which the archaeologists scraped out layer by layer, they discovered a bone needle, “as white as ivory and as delicate as a stem of grass,” that someone lost 8,000 years ago. Nearly one million artifacts were recovered during the dig. What they tell us is that hundreds of generations of First Nations families camped and hunted buffalo here until the great beasts vanished from the Plains.

The disappearance of the buffalo and the settling of the West engendered the bloodshed that ensued between the Sioux and the U.S. Cavalry and between whisky traders and the Blackfoot and Assiniboine. Mounted police may have brought law and order to the area, but they didn’t deliver anything resembling justice to the First Nations, who discovered that land they had occupied since the end of the last ice age had suddenly become the property of a distant government.

Savage’s retelling of this tragic era of Canadian history is heartfelt and thoughtprovoking. Her story weaves descriptions and quotes from historical documents into a narrative threaded with the stories of First Nations residents who live on reserves near Eastend. Their voices bring the book into the present. Fluidly written and conversational, A Geography of Blood artfully unearths Eastend’s astonishingly complex natural and cultural history. If the village’s Arts Council ever harboured any doubts about the value of hosting writers in Stegner’s old house, Savage’s book should comfortably bury those anxieties.

Rick Boychuk


Big lake stories

NATURE/ADVENTURE
The Greatest Lake
Stories from Lake Superior’s North Shore
By Conor Mihell
Dundurn
224 pp.,
$24.99
softcover
With a circumference of nearly 4,400 kilometres, Lake Superior has no shortage of shoreline. And, as Conor Mihell’s book The Greatest Lake shows, it has no shortage of stories either. Mihell, a sea kayak tour guide and environmental/ adventure journalist who lives in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., takes readers on a trip along the Canadian side of the world’s largest freshwater lake (by surface area; Russia’s Lake Baikal is the largest by volume).

Through 16 separate stories, he paints a distinctly Canadian picture of Lake Superior’s north shore, telling tales of the land and the people who inhabit it.

The subject matter of the stories is diverse. One chapter tells the tale of an eccentric and isolated woman living alone in a lighthouse; in another, we meet a group of skiers taking shelter in an abandoned backwoods cabin rumoured to have been built by a Vietnam War draft dodger; others focus on conservation, digging into the consequences of mining projects in Northern Ontario and investigating the impact of hydroelectric dams on the area’s rivers. The author sews these stories together like a patchwork quilt, creating a broad and colourful mosaic.

At times, the book blurs the line between an engaging look at a land less travelled and a set of stories that might appeal only to a niche audience of outdoor enthusiasts. The chapter about telemark skiing may not interest people who are not into snow sports, for instance, and the book’s focus on sea kayaking and canoeing may alienate landlubbers. Ultimately, though, it’s open-air adventure that ties everything together. Whether by himself, with his close friends or with greenhorn tourists, Mihell paddles between tales of natural beauty and human interest, and his experience as both a guide and a journalist make The Greatest Lake a compelling tour of a fascinating and beautiful place.

Jesse Tahirali



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Northern hero

HISTORY
The Last Viking
The Life of Roald Amundsen
By Stephen R. Bown
Douglas & McIntyre
370 pp.,
$32.95
hardcover
When Norway gained its independence from Sweden in 1905, Roald Amundsen was oblivious. He was immersed in Inuit culture in the Canadian Arctic, learning how to survive in harsh conditions while leading history’s first successful expedition through the Northwest Passage. It was only when Amundsen completed his journey the following year that he discovered he had become one of the nascent country’s first national heroes and an international celebrity — and that heroes and celebrities rarely have the privilege of exploring for the sake of exploration.

In The Last Viking, award-winning historical non-fiction author Stephen R. Bown (Merchant Kings: When Companies Ruled the World, 1600-1900 and Madness, Betrayal and the Lash: The Epic Voyage of Captain George Vancouver) peels away much of the romantic varnish from the legend of Amundsen, most commonly known as the man who beat British explorer Robert Falcon Scott to the South Pole. Although Bown is clearly an Amundsen admirer, he reflects on the explorer’s achievements in a measured voice bolstered by meticulous reviews of contemporary press coverage.

Bown’s book reveals another side of exploration, countering Amundsen’s own expedition journals and autobiography, which were written in the explorer’s self-deprecating, lighthearted and understated style, to expose the trials of a man burdened for almost his entire life by crippling financial debts and the constant struggle to align his principles with the necessary evils of his career. Although he was a natural expedition leader — principled, unyielding and always the first among equals — Amundsen was no businessman. He found lecture tours more trying than the expeditions he led and it took him years to master the art of dealing with the media. Yet he understood that for his career to survive, he would have to either work with the government or entertain the general public. Amundsen, who always tried to disassociate his expeditions from political agendas, chose entertainment, seeking elements of drama and spectacle to garnish each of his expeditions.

But even stripped of this aura, Amundsen’s story remains remarkable. As one of the first people to fly above the North Pole, Amundsen was decades ahead of his time. Despite technological leaps, few today have accomplished what Amundsen did in 1926, when air travel was in its infancy.

In chronicling Amundsen’s career, Bown shows that it is ultimately an explorer’s vision, not his or her business acumen or public relations skills, that makes incredible feats possible. For the armchair explorers among his readers, Bown offers a second, more poignant layer of insight into how the modern age has shaped our attitudes toward the unknown.

Samia Madwar

BRIEFLY NOTED

Walls
Travels Along the Barricades By Marcello Di Cintio
Goose Lane
280 pp.,
$29.95
hardcover
“Mr. Gorbachev,” Ronald Reagan famously said at the Brandenburg Gate in 1987, “tear down this wall.” Reagan was imploring the Soviet leader to do away with the Berlin Wall, which had been dividing East and West Germany since 1961. But the U.S. President wasn’t speaking about the physical barrier; the wall stood as a symbol of the Communist East’s separation from the democratic West, and Reagan was seizing the momentum to help end that era.

In Walls: Travels Along the Barricades, award-winning Calgary-based non-fiction author Marcello Di Cintio (Poets & Pahlevans: A Journey into the Heart of Iran and Harmattan: Wind Across West Africa) explores some of the walls that continue to divide cultures around the world. From Palestine to India-Bangladesh to the U.S.- Mexico border, he discovers that while people often find ways to get through (or over) the actual fence — to tend fields they’ve been cut off from, for instance, or to seek opportunity in a new land — there’s an undeniable emotional impact from living in the shadow of a long line of concrete and barbed wire. “The Wall does not defend,” writes Di Cintio, “it defines.”

In Montréal, the sole Canadian stop in this tour of barricades, a rusty old chain-link fence separates the affluent Town of Mount Royal from the lowincome Parc-Extension neighbourhood. Most people, on both sides, now ignore the fence. But not Di Cintio. And that’s his strength as a writer: he observes and reports tirelessly, then makes powerful and poetic connections between all that he has seen and heard. Walls is a moving and extremely engaging book, a reminder of “the constant thrum of hope” amid so many manmade obstacles.

Dan Rubinstein



Sharks
By Michael Bright
Firefly Books
128 pp.,
$19.95
softcover
Few people feel indifferent toward sharks. Haters point to the 1975 movie Jaws for justification, while lovers celebrate the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, which is packed with info on everything from a shark’s sense of smell to the horrors of shark finning. Humans have a long-standing fascination with these fish, and it’s easy to see why: ranging from the metre-long cookiecutter shark (named for the way it munches perfect circles out of the flesh of large sea creatures) to the ancestral megalodon (the length and weight of a school bus), sharks are captivating. Lightning, bees and snakes kill more people every year than sharks do, but none have the notoriety of these finned fish.

Michael Bright, the recently retired executive producer of the BBC Natural History unit and author of more than 90 books, plunges into sharks’ life cycles and biology, explaining different species’ fin-biting mating rituals and debunking myths about feeding frenzies. Readers might cringe when learning about an arm regurgitated by a shark in an Australian aquarium, but Bright does a commendable job of making sharks lovable as he describes their ability to learn and the threats to their conservation. With more than 100 stunning images, Bright’s book is an easy yet informative read.

Kenza Moller



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