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.
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
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
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
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.