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Pierre Radisson kicks off new history series



Bush Runner, a new biography of Pierre-Esprit Radisson, helps kick off a new Canadian history series from Windsor-based publisher Biblioasis. My review in the Globe and Mail begins as follows:
Lake Superior had frozen over. Temperatures hovered around 40 degrees below zero. Families slept in huts they dug out of the snow. They counted their dead each morning. Pierre-Esprit Radisson, starving himself during this “Hunger Winter” of 1659, described people digging for roots, “which could not be done without great difficulty, the earth being frozen two or three feet, and the snow five or six above it.” In Bush Runner, a biography of Radisson (1636-1710), author Mark Bourrie continues the depiction, showing people making soup from the vines that grew on trees and, having long since eaten their dogs, boiling the bones that the crows had picked clean.
Like explorer John Franklin 150 years later, during his disastrous first overland expedition, the starving Huron “boiled leather intended for clothes and shoes” and ate it. They boiled their leather tents. They boiled and ate the beaver pelts that, for Radisson, were the reason he was here. Finally, “they boiled the skins that mothers used as diapers.” When two half-starved Sioux stumbled into camp, Radisson tried to buy their skinny dog. They refused so he waited until they slept. Then he lured the dog away, stabbed it to death, and had it “broiled like a pig, cut in pieces, guts and all, so every one of the family had his share.”
Anybody who finds this hard to read should take a miss on Bourrie’s vivid narrative because you ain’t seen nothing yet. Having arrived in New France in 1651 as a peasant teenager, Radisson was taken prisoner by Iroquois. He showed such a keen interest in Mohawk language and culture – and had such an extraordinary gift for languages – that, after enduring some mild torture, he was adopted and assimilated. More strenuous bouts of torture would come later, after Radisson betrayed and helped murder three young travelling companions.
Bourrie points out that judging ancient First Nations people “on the details of torture adapted from the historical record is akin to reading Rudolf Hoss’s autobiography of his years as Auschwitz commandant to get a grasp of how mid-20th-century Europeans lived and felt.” That said, he spares us nothing – not the burning of hands and feet, the pulling of fingernails, or “the dance of the heads.” Don’t say you haven’t been warned. . . .
To read the rest, click here.

Ken McGoogan
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Before turning mainly to books about arctic exploration and Canadian history, Ken McGoogan worked for two decades as a journalist at major dailies in Toronto, Calgary, and Montreal. He teaches creative nonfiction writing through the University of Toronto and in the MFA program at King’s College in Halifax. Ken served as chair of the Public Lending Right Commission, has written recently for Canada’s History, Canadian Geographic, and Maclean’s, and sails with Adventure Canada as a resource historian. Based in Toronto, he has given talks and presentations across Canada, from Dawson City to Dartmouth, and in places as different as Edinburgh, Melbourne, and Hobart.