Published by the Mary Kaeser Library Board, I wasn't sure what to expect with Sandra Dolan's Wooden Boats and Iron People: The History of Fort Smith, NWT. With no offense intended to the board, I can't imagine they're often in the business of publishing, and outside of Fort Smith residents, I don't expect they'd count on a wide audience.
Which is unfortunate. Wooden Boats and Iron People is a charming book. With glossy photos, well-planned layouts, and most importantly, stellar writing, it comes across as a professional publication. And for Canadian history buffs, it's every bit as entertaining and enlightening as stuff published by large companies.
This summer I read a history of Yellowknife by Ray Price. For the most part I enjoyed it but complained that it got tedious with insignificant details. At a hundred pages, Dolan's writing is far more concise and yet covers much more ground. She starts way back in the days when Fort Smith was covered by the Wisconsin Ice Sheet and follows right up to the present day. She touches on treaties, the church, the schools, the fur trade, the role of Fort Smith as a transportation hub, John Franklin, mayors, landslides, and believe it or not, a whole lot more, without, amazingly feeling rushed.
As a bonus, I also found a few surprises. First-- and this actually relates more to all the northern nonfiction I've been reading lately-- is the interconnectedness of the towns in the Northwest Territories. Coming from a small outport in Newfoundland, I'm used to the idea of small remote towns being isolated and developing in a largely independent setting. While I'd have expected the towns of the Northwest Territories to be likewise, I'm quickly finding that's not necessarily the case. First off, the aboriginal people seemed to move around much more and secondly, as much trade and development depended on life along the various rivers, one town's growth had direct bearing on another. It seems they were not as isolated from one another as I'd assumed.
Secondly, it would appear that one of Fort Smith's largest resources is politics. I was quite taken aback by how many familiar politicians came from this town of about 2500 people. As the fourth largest town in the territory, it seems to have a disproportionate share of well-recognized faces. Good on them!
Wooden Boats and Iron People is by no means an objective book and is celebratory in tone. However it's also not an embarrassing tourist brochure that's high on praise, short on facts. It's an educational and entertaining read.