Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Reader's Diary #851- Mike Vlessides: The Ice Pilots


When Debbie and I first started teaching in Yellowknife in 2008, the subject of snow days came up with our colleagues. "We never have snow days," someone bragged. We'd previously taught in Rankin Inlet and Iqaluit where there were snow days aplenty. Geez, we thought, these Yellowknifers are a tough breed.

Little did we know, they'd never had a reason to have a snow day. Unlike Rankin Inlet and Iqaluit, there isn't a lot of wind here. Sure it gets cold, sure there's snow, but without wind there are no blizzards, and without blizzards there are no snow days. I know, it goes against the perception of Yellowknife being a hardy Arctic frontier town (and if you want to get technical, it's sub-arctic). I'm sure there are a lot of tough people here, but the way we're portrayed in reality shows Ice Road Truckers and Ice Pilots isn't a whole lot more accurate than the fictional Arctic Air. In fact, dandies like me live quite comfortably in Yellowknife. (Ice Dandies?)

It is important to note that The Ice Pilots book by Mike Vlessides is based upon the History Channel TV show of the same name and is about as accurate as you'd expect a reality show to be. So when he begins by playing up how cold it is here, you can be assured that the book is aimed at southerners who believe -40 must mean the apocalypse is nigh. You can also be assured that when he writes about a cold snap in 2008 that saw schools closing to ensure the safety of the staff and students, this is outright baloney. I guess the truth didn't fit with the narrative established by the TV show, a narrative that Mike Vlessides clearly struggled to maintain.

I enjoyed some of the book. There's a lot of Northwest Territories aviation history and while I've heard many of the stories before, Vlessides does have a knack for explaining things in a way any layperson would understand. However, it seemed to lack a focus: was this a book about the author? the TV show? or about the history of NWT bush-pilots? Maybe it didn't need to be one or the other, but a listing of TV star Mikey McBryan's favourite foods seemed even more trivial (if that's even possible) in a book that also touched upon northern pilots who'd lost their lives while on duty.

And then there's a problem with Joe. For those of you unfamiliar with the show, "Buffalo" Joe McBryan is the owner of Buffalo Air. He's presented as being cantankerous, an airplane buff, but otherwise enigmatic. He's not enigmatic. From what I can gather, he simply isn't interested in the TV show, which he considers "Mikey's movie." I feel a little bad for the man as this aloofness seems to have turned him into even more of a character and in turn more of a celebrity. And that's the narrative Vlessides eventually and embarrassingly also latches onto: will he ever get Joe to like him?

The reality show element is no clearer than in the final chapter when Vlessides casually slips in that Rod McBryan has been distant towards him during the writing of the book. (Rod is Mikey's brother, another of Joe's sons.) "Rod McBryan never really seemed to trust me," Vlessides writes. And yet, as Rod is not the founder of Buffalo Air and more importantly, the role of elusive man has already been taken, he is never made a focal point of the book. It wouldn't fit with the show's narrative.

Finally, to add to the woes, The Ice Pilots is in sore need of proofreading. Mistakes such as these are barely excusable in a self-published book, but when it's published by a well known and respected publishing company such as Douglas & McIntyre, it's downright unforgivable. Just a few examples (I've underlined the mistakes for emphasis):
Armed with a new work visa and a master's degree in elementary education (that I'd pick up in New York)[...]

'Yeah, back when you were a little boy they'd take you and put you in than airplane[...]

Quick quiz: What's easier for Mikey to find: new pilots or new mechanics? If you answered new pilots, you're wrong. "It's ten times more difficult to find mechanics than pilots," Mikey says.
When an airplane is grounded due to safety issues that maintenance needs to take care of, we say it has gone mechanical. What's the equivalent term in the publishing world?

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