Saturday, November 22, 2014

Northern reflections: Author ponders sense of place during fortnight in the Arctic

Winnipeg Free Press—PRINT EDITION
Reviewed by Ariel Gordon

Boundless: Tracing Land and Dream in a New Northwest Passage
By Kathleen Winter
House of Anansi Press, 256 pages, $30

In 2010, just after the release of her much-acclaimed first novel Annabel, Montreal-based writer Kathleen Winter got an unusual phone call.

It was Noah Richler, and he was offering her his spot on the Clipper Adventurer, a ship scheduled to travel the Northwest Passage in a little less than a week.

As part of the services offered to its passengers, tour company Adventure Canada usually added ornithologists, scientists and artists to its roster of crew members. If Winter accepted, she would be the designated writer.
Winter packed her bags, stowing her husband's duct-taped and paint-smeared raincoat and a flip-flop/little-black-dress combo in her bag and locating an insulated beer cooler that would hold her old, out-of-tune concertina.

This being Kathleen Winter, she also packed a beard: "The forms and waivers came with photos of the other resource staff. I noticed they were nearly all men, and most had explorer-type beards. I happened to have a beard I'd crocheted out of brown wool on a train trip with my mother—it was a bit more Rasputin than Explorer, but it possessed loops that fit nicely around my ears, so I packed that as well."

Because of her last-minute assignment, Winter had no formal responsibilities during the two-week journey, unlike cultural ambassadors such as Greenlandic-Canadian Inuit guide Aaju Peter, Canadian Inuit guide Bernadette Dean and Winnipeg-based singer Nathan Rogers.

Winter spent her time on board writing and sketching, trying to unpack her ideas about Canada's North and what it means to be both home and away.

This process starts when she listens to Rogers perform his father's Stan's song The Northwest Passage, with its line "tracing one warm line / through a land so wild and savage."

Though now based in Montreal, Winter spent her childhood and early adulthood in Newfoundland, where she moved with her English family as a child. As a grown-up, with elderly parents and children of her own, Winter feels like a cultural orphan, being neither fully Canadian nor properly English:
"How devoid of this warm line my life had felt, uprooted from ancestry, living in industrial cities and mill towns, not understanding messages from animals or from ancestors the way Bernadette and others appeared to do."

She confides some of this to Aaju Peter, herself a mix of Greenlandic and Inuit traditions, who notes: "It's perfectly OK to belong to two cultures. Your voice is authentic, because it's human."

Consoled, Winter begins thinking on the mixed European and indigenous legacy confronting her at every step, how the two ways of life have been intertwined in the North for a long time.

She spends her evening knitting the muskox fur she's collected into the hat she's working on. She starts listening to the land, accumulating lists of fauna with English common names, Latin names and Inuit names.

And so it goes, in a relatively peaceful fashion, until the last leg of their journey, when the Clipper Adventurer runs aground and its 128 passengers have to be rescued. Winter and her fellow passengers weren't in any danger, except perhaps of missing their pre-arranged flights home while waiting for the Amundsen, the Coast Guard icebreaker that happened to be nearby conducting research, to come get them.

But adventure is not really the point of Boundless, which was recently a finalist for the 2014 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction. It is a meditation in the truest sense by a skilled and ever-so-slightly strange storyteller on a two-week trip to Canada's North.

Readers who followed the discovery this past fall of Sir John Franklin's ship HMS Erebus—lost in 1845 as he searched for the Northwest Passage—will enjoy following Winter and her fellow passengers along his route, as well as Winter's account of the ceremonial unearthing of what was supposed to be the logbook from Franklin's voyage.

The long-buried box contained a cardboard box, pieces of newspaper and tallow, but like Boundless, it still makes for a pretty good story.

Ariel Gordon is a Winnipeg writer.

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