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Review: The Writings of David Thompson: Volume 1

A detail from an artist's rendering of David Thompson. There are no known portraits of the man.

In his long life [1770-1857] David Thompson both witnessed and contributed to the transformation of a continent." So begins William E. Moreau's introduction to Thompson's writings. Thompson walked or paddled roughly 80,000 kilometres in his travels, and his maps of the West were the most ambitious and definitive of the era.

He was an unlikely explorer: a short, limping, one-eyed Welshman (though raised in London). At the age of 14, he was indentured to the Hudson's Bay Company and sailed to Fort Churchill, beginning his Gulliver-like travels.

In his extensive journals, Thompson catalogued native culture, religion and language, flora and fauna, weather, the properties of snow, the brain of the moose, the construction of the mosquito, the glory of God and the foibles of man. He has been called both "the greatest practical land geographer that the world has produced" and "the foundation myth-maker of the Canadian West."

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For all his heroic work, Thompson died impoverished, unappreciated and largely unknown. He had been working on a book based on the journal he kept for 62 years, but was unable to find a publisher. He was also unable to sell his magnificent maps for anything resembling a fair price.

The rehabilitation of his reputation began in 1895, when geologist Joseph Burr Tyrell bought Thompson's notebooks from a Toronto newspaper editor who had purchased them from Thompson's son, Joshua. Tyrell then edited them and submitted the manuscript to the Champlain Society, which published it in 1916. It arrived in the middle of a war, and at a time when the West was no longer exotic, and sold only a few hundred copies.

Thompson's next editor was Richard Glover, whose edition came out in 1962, also published by the Champlain Society. In 1971, Victor Hopwood edited what he optimistically intended as a commercial version of the Travels, which was published by Macmillan of Canada.

The benefit of Thompson's writing is his vast range, his extraordinary curiosity and the fact that his work is relatively untarnished by European sensibility

Tyrell thought Thompson was a genius and a saint; Glover thought he wasn't entirely to be trusted; Hopwood thought he might sell, and a dozen biographers fashioned a hero out of these shifting portraits. William E. Moreau, a teacher and lecturer at the University of Toronto, essentially provides a synthesis of these versions in his lengthy introduction. He has kept Thompson's anachronistic spelling ("furr," for example), though he ameliorated both the endless paragraphs of the original and Thompson's deep love of long sentences linked by a dozen semi-colons.

Thompson had a reputation as a storyteller, but it's a gift that rarely translates to his writing. He doesn't mention his wife, Charlotte, with whom he had 13 children, or write much about colleagues, or himself. The age of introspection hadn't yet arrived. He wrote as a scientist.

George Simpson, the ruthless governor of the Hudson's Bay Company, was more entertaining in his descriptions of the many people he downsized ("a frothy trifling conceited man who would starve in any other Country and is perfectly useless here"). Simpson was an efficiency expert who closed 73 trading posts and fired half the employees, a precursor to late-20th-century corporate culture. For his managerial role, Simpson became rich and was knighted, while Thompson's genius ended in penury. At one point, Thompson appealed to Sir George to help finance the writing of the Travels, but Simpson refused.

The benefit of Thompson's writing is his vast range, his extraordinary curiosity and the fact that his work is relatively untarnished by European sensibility. Other than native religion (Thompson was a pious man), which Thompson thought uncivilized, he examined their culture and practices with objectivity and appreciation.

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His unstinting rationalism had a few interesting blips, though. He recounts an episode when the Devil suddenly materialized and the two of them played checkers. "[H]s features and colour were those of a Spaniard, he had two short black horns on his forehead, which pointed forwards, his head and body down to the waist, (I saw no more) was covered with glossy, black, curling hair, his countenance mild and grave. … Was it a dream, or was it a reality. I could not decide." This moment of magic realism gives Thompson's otherwise rationalist narrative another dimension.

The Travels isn't a riveting story. It is a collection of detail that slowly brings a much larger picture into focus. Why edit another version of Thompson's book then?

For one thing, Thompson is finally getting the attention he deserves; there are more statues and books and roads and parks in his name. He may finally become a profitable industry. The Travels is one of the pillars of Canadian writing, and as such, a primary source for scholars and researchers. Thompson is essential to the concept of the West; in some (European) ways, he created it. He predicted the demise of the bison, the decimation of native culture and the arrival of settlers, and he was the most profound link between the two groups.

William Moreau has edited the definitive version of Thompson's work and provided a scholarly synthesis of his life and impact. It is an elegant and necessary book.

Don Gillmor's new novel, Kanata, features David Thompson as a central character.

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