Thursday, December 10, 2009

Reader's Diary #552- Dick North: The Lost Patrol

Canadians of my generation use a system of measurement known as Metrial. In this expression of freedom, we decide which measurements we take in metric and which measurements we take in imperial. Temperatures: Celsius. Height: Feet and Inches. Liquids: Litres. Weight: Pounds. Speed: Kilometers per hour. It's not a perfect system, but we also take pride in our humility, so it's all good.

Except when someone from the older, pre-Metrial, generation throws an imperial wrench into the system.* I've been visiting with my inlaws before when they've announced that it's supposed to be up to 78 degrees today. Great. Should I pack a sweater or shorts? I'm completely lost. As I was with Dick North's The Lost Patrol. Originally published in 1978, the Metrification of Canada was relatively new (Trudeau first started to introduce it 1970) and so North, and his readers, were no doubt more comfortable with the miles and Fahrenheit temperatures of which he wrote. However, since it's been republished twice now (in 1995 and again in 2008), I was surprised, and disappointed, not to see any metric conversions. Even a simple conversion chart stuck back in the appendix would have been nice. Had it not been for easy to access online converters, I'd never have straightened the whole thing out.

Of course, North probably had other reasons to use the imperial units as well. The Lost Patrol is the true account of four North-West Mounted Policemen who left from Fort McPherson, Northwest Territories for Dawson City, Yukon-- a distance of 475 miles. They were travelling by dogsled and it was December. They never arrived.

475 miles or 764 kilometers? The patrol members would have used the imperial distances of course, and it seems to be common practice in historical texts to use the units and terminology of the time. (This is often the justification for still referring to the Inuit as Eskimos in a lot of historical Canadian nonfiction.) But again, a conversion chart would have been nice. And lest it seems that I'm making a bigger deal out of it than I need be, keep in mind that two of the main reasons these men died were the cold and distance they tried to cross-- a reader really should have a firm grasp on those two concepts in order to fully appreciate the tragedy.

However, as I have said, I accessed online converters and I was fine. Annoyed as I was that I had to do this, it was worth it and I did enjoy the book as a whole. Up to this point, most of my exposure to Northern nonfiction has been through Pierre Berton. Though I haven't enjoyed all of his books, he did have a knack for personalizing the characters, often making historical accounts read like novels. North didn't do this, didn't try to do this as far as I could tell, and it was another adjustment for me.

But for all that he put the tragedy, and men involved, in perspective. He gave them a fairer representation than I think they've gotten in the past. Reading my synopsis of the book above "...a distance of 475 miles. They were travelling by dogsled and it was December" you just knew what line was going to follow: "They never arrived." There have been so many tales of tragedy in the North that it'd be easy to write these men off as bumbling, naive white men who had no idea what it took to survive in the wilderness. On the other hand, they were mounties who died on duty in the North. Automatically assumed heroism is just as likely. It reminds me of a great Simpsons bit:

HOMER: That Timmy is a real hero!
LISA: How do you mean, Dad?
HOMER: Well, he fell down a well, and... he can't get out.
LISA: How does that make him a hero?
HOMER: Well, that's more than you did!

With true skill, North finds the truth somewhere in between. Yes, Fitzgerald and his men made lots of mistakes on this journey and those mistakes led to their ultimate demise. But they had a lot of bad luck as well. And these men weren't amateurs. Two of them (Fitzgerald and Carter) had actually had a lot of experience traveling and patrolling the North. However, perhaps it was successful past experiences that ultimately did them in. Over-confidence led to the men taking the dangers of the Northern winter for granted and bad decisions escalated from there.

The Lost Patrol is a well researched and balanced look at a Canadian tragedy.

(*There are also, of course, the post-Metrials, the Metrics, who are equally as dumbfounding. How many kilograms am I? How the hell should I know? 300? 70? 6? I don't even know what's reasonable.)


Nicola said...

Sounds like a good book. I'm pretty sure I read an old children's book about the topic a long time ago.

Love your take on Metrics, Metrials, etc! I'm with you but even more mixed up: I prefer Fahrenheit for hot and Celsius for cold. For speed I use km for how fast I'm going but miles for how far somewhere is.

The other thing is when you go to the doctor and they take your temperature and tell you it's 30-something. I'm like what?? Is that good or bad? It's supposed to be 98.6 isn't it?

kiirstin said...

This does sound like a fascinating book, though I have a hard time picking up something where I know the end result is not good. "They never made it" does not sound good.

Re: Metrial, that made me laugh! I can't get my head around Fahrenheit at all, but my height is always in feet (tho I've memorized it in cm now so I can fill out forms properly) and weight is the worst. Small things are in grams, but anything over a pound is in pounds!

John Mutford said...

Nicola: Yeah, you're right. For body temps, I do go by the 98.6. Interesting that they'd turn a book about four police officers freezing and starving to death into a kids' book!

Kiirsten: I think the key has to be making the "why" the focal point, to make it a bit of a mystery.

raidergirl3 said...

Did you make up metrial? that is awesome, like 10 km and 2 feet of awesome.
I always thought Canadians had given up on distances to drive and just gave times. How far away? About 2 hours.

I teach science, so I hope I am more versed in metric than the average Joe.

John Mutford said...

Raidergirl: Yes, it's mine. Your Bookword Game is having an effect on me.

Chris said...

My metric confusion always affects me during cooking. 16 oz package of chocolate chips? What the hell is that? Do I get out a scale? PC chocolate chips are in grams. Thank goodness for the internet and conversion charts.