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Review: Adams Shoalts’s A History of Canada in Ten Maps and Barbara Mitchell's Mapmaker chart the country’s past

It is hard to get inside the psyche of early map makers, who launched themselves into the immense, unmapped but not unpopulated wildernesses of North America.

British Library / Granger, NYC

A History of Canada in Ten Maps: Epic Stories of Charting a Mysterious Land

By Adam Shoalts

Allen Lane, 384 pages, $36

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Mapmaker: Philip Turnor in Rupert's Land in the Age of Enlightenment

By Barbara Mitchell

University of Regina Press, 328 pages, $39.95

These days, we take for granted that we can always know where we are, thanks to atlases, GPS technology or impossible-to-fold road maps. What's more, we can explore our surroundings without lifting our eyes from screen or paper. There are few land masses on the globe that remain uncharted and the ocean bed is currently yielding its secrets.

So it is hard to get inside the psyche of early map makers, who launched themselves into the immense, unmapped but not unpopulated wildernesses of North America. They were an extraordinary bunch of men (yes, nearly all men, I'm afraid, although often dependent on Indigenous women for their survival) who laboriously charted vast landscapes, noting the vagaries of coasts, rivers, mountains, prairies, often with the most primitive technologies. A single motive underlay those who paid their costs: profit. But the explorers, traders, scientists and dreamers who faced unknown perils had little in common, other than stamina, resilience and determination to break new ground.

In his second book, A History of Canada in Ten Maps, the intrepid modern adventurer Adam Shoalts uses cartography as a lens through which to chart Canadian history from the non-Indigenous perspective. Starting with the Skalholt Map, compiled by a Viking map maker a millennium ago and now lost, Shoalts traces the rise of New France, the quest for a route to China, the gathering momentum of the fur trade, the clashes between Britain's North American colonies and the penetration of the Arctic darkness.

It's an epic journey and Shoalts relishes the brutal struggles for dominance, the restless swagger of men such as Peter Pond, the tales of mammoths and wendigos carefully noted by David Thompson, the ghastly cannibalism that occurred on Captain John Franklin's expedition to the Coppermine River.

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This book is a synthesis of published sources, such as the well-edited journals of the explorers themselves, or biographies such as David Hackett Fischer's monumental Champlain's Dream. Shoalts has done an elegant job of patchworking the stories together and reminding us of the vast and brooding influence of geography on our history. For contemporary Canadians, predominantly urban and globally connected, this perspective may be unsettling. However, I wish the author had injected some of his own experiences of northern rivers into his smooth and accessible prose. One rarely feels the white-knuckle adrenalin rush of the rapids in these pages or the burn of frostbite.

If Shoalts shapes his material from a few thousand metres above ground, Barbara Mitchell is almost submerged in the details of her narrative. At a family gathering, Mitchell discovered she was a descendant of Philip Turnor, a Hudson Bay surveyor, and his Cree wife. Turnor had arrived in York Factory, the company's North American headquarters on Hudson Bay in 1778, and spent several harrowing years charting Rupert's Land for the company and running some of its trading posts. He learned the Cree language and, like most senior HBC officers, he acquired a Cree companion, who in 1782 bore him a son. His 10 beautifully drawn records of northern rivers (several are reproduced in this volume) are some of the finest in the HBC Archives and he is credited with teaching Peter Fidler and David Thompson surveying skills.

Mitchell was intrigued by the family connection and set off on a quest to discover more. It was a frustrating search. Turnor emerges as a cold fish. His journals are filled with technical information but devoid of personal revelations (his Cree wife is unmentioned). So, Mitchell has adopted an unusual device. Interspersed within the narrative of Turnor's life, including excerpts from his HBC journal and descriptions of the wider context (London in the late 18th century, rivalry between fur traders) are accounts of her own research expeditions. She flies to Norway House, about 500 kilometres by air – and a lot further by canoe or on foot – north of Lake Winnipeg, and wonders if her ancestor sat on the same rock that she sits on, drinking strong tea. She goes to Battersea, London, to see the church in which Philip married an English wife while on a visit home and she tries to blot out the concrete and glass high-rises that now tower over the church spire.

Does the approach work? At times, it is an uncomfortable mix, with memoir, genealogy and biography bleeding into one another, and invented conversations popping up in the historical narrative. But unlike Shoalts's authorial detachments, Mitchell's style allows the reader to get up close and personal with both the author and her subject, despite Turnor's bloodless journal notations. She brings to life the killing cold of the winters, the insufferable mosquito swarms and the near starvation her ancestor faced, as well as her own the thrill of donning white cotton gloves and unfolding a two-century-old map.

Historian Harold Innis wrote, "Canada is a country because of its geography, not in spite of it." By capturing the geography on paper, all these map-makers contributed to that assertion.

Charlotte Gray's most recent book is The Promise of Canada.

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Editor’s Note An earlier version of this review said the book lacked maps. In fact, the reviewer was given an early draft of the book which lacked maps and the final version has all ten maps.
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