A History of Canada in Ten Maps – Epic Stories of Charting a Mysterious Land. By Adam Shoalts (hardcover, 2017; softcover, 2018)
I BOUGHT THIS BOOK AS A GIFT for someone who prefers non-fiction over fiction. The title was uninspiring (to me) but the trusted booksellers at Munro’s Books assured me that the book was a winner. They were not wrong.
Each of the book’s 10 chapters tells the story behind one of the 10 maps that are included in the book, beginning with the Skalholt Map made in 1590 by an Icelandic scholar, and ending with John Franklin’s 1828 map of the Arctic wilderness. Shoalts links the maps and stories together, showing their importance to establishing the borders of the country we know as Canada today. Readers will be familiar with some of the explorer/mapmakers, such as Samuel de Champlain, but perhaps less so with others, such as Peter Pond.
Like all great non-fiction writers, Adam Shoalts is a superb storyteller. For example, he starts one chapter with 12-year old Pierre-Esprit Radisson out duck hunting in 1652 with two friends. An Iroquois raiding party stalks them and kills the two friends, but decides to take Radisson as a captive. Another chapter begins, “Inside the palisade walls of the little wilderness fortress, a severed head impaled on a pike stood as a grim warning.” As a reader, I am hooked, and I don’t have to be told that it was a harsh and dangerous existence in the 1600s in the country that would become Canada.
Shoalts’ credibility for his topic is unquestionable. He is an explorer himself. In fact, he completed a 4000-kilometre solo journey across Canada’s arctic, which you can read about in his book, Alone Against the North. His doctoral research examines the influence indigenous oral traditions had on European explorers in Canada’s subarctic and West Coast, knowledge which informs his writing throughout. It was interesting to learn that French explorers acknowledged the expertise of the local First Nations, who often kept the explorers from starving to death, whereas the British were more inclined to go to war with and exterminate the Indian Nations. This book is meticulously researched with pages of notes at the end.
I was astounded at the bravery, as well as the foolhardiness, of these early explorers, and I learned a great deal about Canada’s history. Armchair explorers will be engaged and can enjoy the adventures vicariously. Those adventuresome readers will relate to the challenges of surviving in a wilderness. I plan to read Shoalts’ book, Alone Against the North, very soon.
I asked four friends who had also read and loved the book for some comments. Once they got their protests out (“Shit, Mar—I never even did book reports in school except from reading inside the cover!), I received some brilliant and humorous insights from them:
“When you read the stories and look at the maps you think ‘how could they keep track of it all?’ I would be lost and eaten by a bear.”
“I learned more about early Canadian history by reading this book than I did through all my years in school.”
“It is obvious now, but I had never thought of the opening up of Canada being due to guys who didn’t just want to see what was over the next hill, but they wanted to make a map so they and others could go back.”
“I did have some familiarity with separate events in the book, picked up from history classes in school and through other books I’ve read over the years. The idea of tying these events together chronologically referencing the most recent maps “of the time” was a brilliant idea, in my opinion. It put a lot in perspective for me. I can well imagine someone looking at those “incomplete” maps and wondering what must lay beyond what was then known. It makes total sense that people would continue to forge ahead to want to fill in the blanks. This will be one of the very few books I will read again someday.”
Marilyn McCrimmon is a native Victorian and freelance writer. She has written for Focus since its inception in 1988.