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U.S. writer discovers Alexander Mackenzie

The latest issue of Canada's History finds me reviewing Disappointment River by American writer Brian Castner. The subtitle is Finding and Losing the Northwest Passage and the publisher McClelland & Stewart. 
The clouds over the mountains to the west of the Mackenzie River looked like “three enormous flying saucers descending on us.” They “were layered, like plates or shelves, the sky behind nothing but black. The temperature dropped twenty degrees.”
Author Brian Castner was retracing the 1789 journey of fur trader Alexander Mackenzie to the Arctic coast. Castner and his paddling companion scrambled ashore and erected their tent, but “the front hit like a concussion, a wall of thickened menacing air. The tent recoiled as if struck, the outer shell suddenly pummelled by wind and fat drops of rain. The whole shelter was vibrating.”
The front stakes tore out, the tent collapsed, and the two men found themselves trying to regroup while “soaked in the driving rain and only half-dressed, boxers and no shirts.”
This is one of many vivid passages from the new book Disappointment River. Castner is a skilled writer who, no mean feat, manages to interweave the tale of his own adventure on the great river with what history-buff Canadians regard as the familiar story of Mackenzie’s epochal quest.
The writing is excellent. But this book feels especially fresh because, while most historians treat fur-trading explorers in either a British or a Canadian context, Castner brings an American perspective to the table.
When was the last time you saw Washington Irving quoted on the fur trade? Right. Yet Castner cites that nineteenth-century man of letters three times. Castner does not ignore the Laurentian thesis — that Canadian economic development came mainly from resource exploitation — or the foundational nature of the fur trade, but he is more inclined to reference the American Revolution or the 1760 capture of Detroit.
“In traditional American mythology,” he writes, “we associate the West with opportunity, but the North is known for hardship. Their conjunction — in the Northwest Passage, North West Company, Northwest Territories — speaks to both ideas. You go north and west to test yourself, but in pursuit of an objective.”
Castner mentions that, before leaving home, he read widely in Canadian newspapers and books. And the paddler is acutely aware of being a foreigner in a strange land. One of his companions makes a joke, he writes, “in an exaggerated northern Wisconsin accent that came off as vaguely Canadian.” He notes that one man he meets has “good looks that I’d call All-American if he weren’t Canadian, born and bred in the North.”
Elsewhere, while driving northwest through rural towns, Castner writes: “‘No wonder Canadians seem to be natural socialists and praise collective effort,’ I thought. ‘Their land is too big, they too few.’”
Again, this is not off-putting but refreshing. Here’s an American showing an interest in a landscape, a social reality, and a history beyond the borders of the United States.

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.