Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Reader's Diary #724- Pierre Berton: Prisoners of the North

Lately I've been finding myself "forgiving" more and more nonfiction for the lower quality of writing compared to novels. I at least found the topic interesting, I'd tell myself, so what if it's not up there with say Barney's Version or the Handmaid's Tale. Fortunately Pierre Berton has come along and rescued me from my complacency. Nonfiction can be just as well written and I shouldn't have to accept less.

Prisoners of the North is essentially a collection of 5 mini-biographies of people whose memories have been tied, or imprisoned if you will, to the North: Joe Boyle, a mining tycoon; Vilhjalmur Stefansson, an explorer in search of a long lost tribe of Inuit; Jane Franklin, who wouldn't let her husband John's expedition be forgotten; John Hornby, a reclusive eccentric; and Robert Service, the poet behind The Shooting of Dan McGrew" and "The Cremation of Sam McGee."

Once again Berton manages to turn individuals into characters, without making it sound like he made too many assumptions. Yes, Berton assigns each person with particular psychological profiles, but he always backs them up with enough supporting opinion and facts that it would be hard to argue that his conclusions are at the very least reasonable, and at the very most fascinating. Likewise, he retells history with a narrative that rivals most novels. Yet he not only doesn't stoop to exaggeration, he often calls out those that have inflated the truth.

I wouldn't say that Prisoners of the North is flawless, but my few issues had more to do with Berton's choice of characters to highlight than his writing, and my biggest problem with those was the inclusion of Jane Franklin. It's not that Jane wasn't interesting, I suppose, but he'd already covered her sufficiently, in my opinion, in The Arctic Grail. Furthermore, while Lady Jane did travel extensively, she didn't set foot in the Arctic herself. And while the other characters are interesting and I enjoyed learning more Northern history, (I especially enjoyed Hornby, and hearing a little about his encounters with Bullock and Weaver, two characters with businesses named after them here in Yellowknife) I couldn't help but notice that all of Berton's characters are white. Certainly all of them have their place in our collective history, and certainly a common theme in a good many of Berton's books is the folly of white men not to follow the wisdom of native peoples on how to survive in lands they've survived in for thousands of years. However, it was Aboriginal Day yesterday and I can't help but think of all the untold, and in many cases forgotten, history that existed long before and while Hornby starved to death on the barrens, long before and while Franklin decided to find the Northwest Passage. I know Berton relied heavily on written sources and the aboriginals at the time, unlike the white men, were of an oral culture, but I still wish Berton had sufficiently covered the legacy of at least one native history maker.


Wanda said...

They didn't call him "Canada's master storyteller" for nothing. Wish this one was available in CD format.

John Mutford said...

Wanda: Not as a CD, it is available as an eBook, but for a whopping $24.95, the exact same as the paperback. The former had zero printing costs, zero paper production, nothing to keep on a shelf, and you can't share it with your friends, yet somehow Random House can justify charging $24.95 (which, in all honesty, is even too much for a paperback, if you ask me.)

Wanda said...

Haven't really embraced that whole eReader scene yet, John. Truthfully, I don't "listen" to many books either but would have picked this up for hubby's commute back and forth to work.