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Celebrating an early champion of the Inuit

Celebrating an early champion of the Inuit


Arctic history buffs around the world are today celebrating what would have been John Rae’s 208th birthday. Born at the Hall of Clestrain in Orkney on September 30, 1813, Rae became a doctor in Edinburgh and then entered the fur trade with the Hudson’s Bay Company. After learning from First Nations and Inuit hunters, he became the foremost overland traveler of the age. Rae discovered both the fate of the 1845 Franklin expedition and the final link in the first navigable Northwest Passage. In England during the Victorian era, when Charles Dickens and others thought fit to slander the Inuit, Rae emerged as the greatest champion of Canada’s Indigenous peoples. In 1999, I was with the late Louie Kamookak when he led the way to the cairn that Rae built in 1854 overlooking Rae Strait.In Orkney, the John Rae Society is working hard to restore the Hall of Clestrain and turn it into an International Arctic Visitor Centre. Happy birthday, John Rae! And Louie, wish you were here!
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Ken McGoogan
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Let's resolve Canada's non-fiction crisis

Let's resolve Canada's non-fiction crisis


Canada’s non-fiction crisis is the focus of this week’s SHuSH by Kenneth Whyte. That crisis is the absence of support in this country for research-based non-fiction – biography, history, and science. Whyte, publisher of Sutherland House, is spurred to comment by the recently announced five-book shortlist for the $60,000 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust prize for non-fiction. He laments -- rightly in my view -- that all five books are memoirs. Dan Wells, publisher and owner of Biblioasis, writes in support of Whyte. Wells notes that writer Elaine Dewar worked solidly for more than a year to produce On the Origin of the Deadliest Pandemic in 100 Years – and he could afford to pay her only a modest four-figure advance. Few Canadian authors can afford to self-finance a research-heavy book. So countless books don’t get written. Canadians get swamped with biographies and histories from, ahem, other countries. “We’ve got to figure out a way to fund this kind of writing,” Wells writes, “whether it’s through private funders or through public funders.” Funnily enough, or maybe not so funnily, the Writers’ Trust of Canada was once on track to solve this problem. I know because in 2001, my book Fatal Passage won the Writers’ Trust Drainie-Taylor Biography Prize. That award was discontinued after 2006 in favor of what is now the Hilary Weston Prize for Nonfiction. That was the fatal wrong turn. True, the Drainie-Taylor was awarded for works of biography, autobiography, or memoir. And, also true,
in any given bookstore, you will find biography situated with autobiography. Still, the Drainie-Taylor pointed the way forward, and that is to split Nonfiction into the two streams Whyte and Wells have identified. An excellent place to begin would be to offer two different awards in nonfiction: one for Memoir and Autobiography, the other for Biography, History, and Science (research-heavy works). How hard can that be?
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Ken McGoogan
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Farley Mowat left a marvelous legacy

Farley Mowat left a marvelous legacy


Back in 2014, I published the following reminiscence in the National Post. Strangely, it is no longer accessible on that newspaper's site. So, in reponse to clamourous demand, I reprise the post here . . . . The recent death of Farley Mowat at 92 sparked heartfelt reminiscences and stirred up old controversies. But the most interesting question, going forward, concerns legacy. Some of us contend that Mowat was a giant. For starters, we cite numbers: 45 books, 60 countries, and (ballpark) 15 million copies sold. But if, as a writer, Mowat was a Gulliver in Lilliput, and not just commercially, then surely he left a legacy? He must have established or advanced some literary tradition? Profoundly influenced younger Canadian writers? The answer is an emphatic yes. Born May 12, 1921, Mowat energized not only the Baby Boomers, my own generation, but younger writers. Before going further, a clarification: as a Canadian, Mowat is often linked with Pierre Berton, who was born ten months before him. Both were prolific, larger-than-life personalities published by Jack McClelland. Both wrote mainly nonfiction.
But Berton, who cut his professional teeth as a journalist, became famous for sweeping Canadian histories: The National Dream, The Invasion of Canada, Vimy, The Great Depression, The Arctic Grail. Contemporary Canadian historians who achieve readability while tackling big themes are working in a tradition established by Berton and Peter C. Newman (The Canadian Establishment, Company of Adventurers). Think of Margaret Macmillan and Paris, 1919, or of Christopher Moore and 1867: How the Fathers Made a Deal. Think of such military historians as Tim Cook, Mark Zuelke, and Ted Barris. Farley Mowat did not write history. He took a keen interest in prehistory, in archaeology and legend, and so produced West-Viking and The Farfarers. But looking back at his long career in context, we discover that Mowat was Canada’s first writer of creative nonfiction (CNF). The genre has been succinctly defined: “true stories, well told.” Its hallmark is engagement: personal presence or voice. Celebrated early practitioners include Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe, and Joan Didion. But Farley Mowat started publishing in 1952, some fifteen years before these American figures emerged, largely from the “new journalism.” Mowat had studied neither history nor literature. He had trained not as a journalist but as a biologist. He had no veteran writer at his shoulder, offering advice. When in the late 1940s, as a twenty-something environmentalist, Mowat sat down to cobble a book together, he was alone in the dark. He wrote because he felt deeply about the North, about the people and the wildlife he had recently encountered. Driven by passion, and drawing on his extraordinary fluency, he produced The People of the Deer -- a powerful indictment of government mistreatment of the Inuit. Did he exaggerate and make mistakes? Yes, he did. Did he commit what today we regard as authorial sins? Again: yes. But Mowat was finding his way in a wilderness, pioneering a new genre of writing, one he called “subjective nonfiction.” Today, nobody uses that term. Writers, editors and critics lean to literary, narrative, or creative nonfiction (CNF). Over the past 60 years, through trial and error and countless furious arguments, we have hammered out a set of conventions. The writer of creative nonfiction writer enters into a contract with the reader. You agree to tell the truth. You don’t change dates, places, or other facts. You don’t invent characters. You draw on research, memory, and imagination, and you use all the technical skill you command to tell your true story. As these conventions emerged, Mowat evolved and worked within them. To survey his body of work is to witness the development of a major writer. The rough carpentry of People of the Deer gives way to the equally searing but masterful Sea of Slaughter. Down through the decades, while remaining true to his singular vision, Mowat displayed an astonishing versatility. His permutations and combinations represent a master class in the possibilities of creative nonfiction. He did trail-blazing work in a variety of subgenres that other Canadian writers have taken up and developed: environmental polemic, autobiography/memoir, political polemic, exploration narrative, adventure travel, cultural advocacy, cross-gender biographical narrative, the man never stopped writing. Mowat’s environmental polemics include Never Cry Wolf, A Whale for the Killing, and Sea of Slaughter. All three inspired films. The first, published more than 50 years ago, crosses the line into fictionalizing and today would not pass muster as nonfiction. It drew acclaim and sparked controversy in Canada, and in translation, prompted Russia to change its laws regarding wolf culling. In A Whale For the Killing, Mowat relates his losing battle to rescue a trapped whale from hunters who laughed to kill it. And Sea of Slaughter (1984), probably the most powerful of Mowat’s indictments, reviews in vivid detail the way we humans have devastated birds, whales, and animal life along the Atlantic coast of North America. With these books, Mowat cleared the way for John Vaillant (The Golden Spruce); Maude Barlow (Blue Future: Protecting Water for People and the Planet Forever); Taras Grescoe (Bottomfeeder); J.B. MacKinnon (The Once and Future World); Wayne Grady (Bringing Back the Dodo); and Andrew Westoll (The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary). Turning to memoir/autobiography, CNF’S most popular subgenre, Mowat displayed an extraordinary breadth of subject matter and mood. His harrowing evocations of life in the trenches during the Second World War (The Regiment, And No Birds Sang) contrast sharply with the comic misadventures that drive such works as The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be and The Boat Who Wouldn’t Float. His spectrum, from the profoundly moving to the hilarious, anticipates books ranging from Ian Brown’s The Boy in the Moon to Will Ferguson’s light-hearted Canadian Pie, and from the darkness of Jan Wong’s Out of the Blue to the whimsy of Paul Quarrington’s The Boy on the Back of the Turtle. Mowat produced ferocious political polemics. The best-known is probably My Discovery of America, which he wrote after being barred from entering the United States. In this sub-genre, his heirs include Naomi Klein (The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism); Linda McQuaig (Billionaire’s Ball: Gluttony and Hubris in an Age of Epic Inequality); Stephen Kimber (What Lies Across the Water: The Real Story of the Cuban Five); and Lawrence Martin (Harperland: The Politics of Control). While he was at it, Farley Mowat “invented” the Canadian North -- certainly in terms of global awareness, but also dor many Canadians. In 1952, when he published The People of the Deer, readers around the world said, what? Canada includes an Arctic dimension? And people actually live in it? In a distinctive manner? Mowat drove this message home across three CMF sub-genres: exploration narrative, adventure travel, and cultural advocacy. Books like Coppermine Journey and Ordeal by Ice cleared the way for Frozen in Time: The Fate of the Franklin Expedition by John Geiger and Owen Beattie, and for my own Fatal Passage and Race to the Polar Sea. Mowat’s works of adventure travel found him ranging widely, from the north (High Latitudes: An Artic Journey) to the European continent (Aftermath: Travels in a Post-War World. His Canadian heirs include Charles Montgomery (The Last Heathen); Will Ferguson (Beyond Belfast); Charles Wilkins (Walk to New York); Karen Connelly (Burmese Lessons); Wayne Grady and Merilyn Simonds (Breakfast at the Exit Café); Myrna Kostash (Bloodlines: A Journey into Eastern Europe); and J.B. MacKinnon (Dead Man in Paradise). Mowat’s works of cultural advocacy, from People of the Deer through Death of a People and No Man’s River, opened the road for Ronald Wright (Stolen Continents), Tom King (The Inconvenient Indian); Daniel Francis (The Imaginary Indian); John Ralston Saul (A Fair Country); Richard Wagamese (One Native Life); Wade Davis (The Wayfinders); and Kenn Harper (Give Me My Father’s Body). The master’s adventure in cross-gender biographical narrative, Virunga: The Passion of Dian Fossey, encouraged Charlotte Gray’s book about Alexander Graham Bell (Reluctant Genius) and my own about the wife of Sir John Franklin (Lady Franklin’s Revenge). Yes, we Canadian writers of CNF are all in this man’s debt. Farley Mowat never stopped working, never stopped sharing his vision, his passion, and his literary gifts. He kept blazing trails, opening up one new path after another. His death has turned us into a first posterity, called upon to render judgment. On the one hand, we have a few rookie-writer mistakes that are 50 and 60 years old. On the other, we discover this marvellous legacy, still just launching. For those who read and write creative nonfiction, the decision is a no-brainer. Farley Mowat, R.I.P. We will not see your like again.
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Ken McGoogan
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SHOUT-OUT to a Writers' Trust Rising Star!

SHOUT-OUT to a Writers' Trust Rising Star!



It's time for a QUIET SHOUT-OUT to Keriann McGoogan for being named a Writers' Trust of Canada Rising Star for 2021. Yup, the announcement came last week. McGoogan was one of five emerging writers to get the nod . . . along with $5,000 cash, a Banff-Centre residency, and a mentorship with an established author.
Keriann is a primatologist and author of Chasing Lemurs: My Journey into the Heart of Madagascar. In selecting her for this honor, Deborah Campbell, winner of the Hilary Weston Prize for A Disappearance in Damascus, wrote as follows:
"Writer and primatologist Keriann McGoogan combines a passion for threatened wildlife with an equal concern for the people whose lives intersect with it. Working in some of the remotest places on earth, she shows courage and resourcefulness in the face of profound obstacles, bringing back fascinating insights into culture, history, the consequences of resource extraction, and the primates whose lives hang in the balance. Combining fast-paced narrative with deeply researched observations, McGoogan’s writing is both an inspiration to anyone embarking on challenging fieldwork and a captivating read."

In writing Chasing Lemurs, Keriann drew on her 19 months of living and working in Madagascar, when she spent
12-hour days following groups of lemurs. She volunteers as a board member for Planet Madagascar, a not-for-profit that aims to conserve the island’s unique biodiversity and help the local Malagasy community. In accepting the Writers' Trust award, she spoke of writing a women-and-science-centred nonfiction book -- that's the big one she will work on with Campbell -- and a Young Adult novel, nearing completion, based mostly in Madagascar.
You can read more -- and even catch a video -- by heading here.

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Ken McGoogan
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Dead Reckoning thriving in Alaska

Dead Reckoning thriving in Alaska



 By David James / Anchorage Daily News

In “Dead Reckoning,” his masterful history of Europe’s search for the Northwest Passage, Canadian historian Ken McGoogan argues persuasively that those explorers who paid close attention to Native peoples of the Arctic, and who worked closely with them, generally thrived. In an often deadly climate, learning from those who dwelt in it was paramount.

By the time American expeditions began pushing northward late in the 19th century, this appears to have been well understood, and employing local men to assist with hunting, overland travel, dog handling, translation and other necessities was common.

One such individual was Hans Hendrik. Born and raised in the small trading post of Fiskernæs (now Qeqertarsuatsiaat) in southwestern Greenland, Hendrik was an Inuit who was hired by Elisha Kent Kane, commander of the Second Grinnell expedition, bound for the island’s northern end.

It was Hendrik’s first voyage north, and the experience would define his life. He remained near Upernavik to settle while Kane and his men began their long march south when the sea ice refused to release their ship. Hendrik would go on to serve in three more expeditions — two American, one British — and emerge as the hero of the Polaris Expedition nearly two decades later, when deaths would have been numerous but for the efforts of himself and another Inuit man.

After his journeys, Hendrik did something else. He wrote a book. “Memoirs of Hans Hendrik” is a brief but fascinating account of Hendrik’s experiences as a hand on these expeditions. Originally composed in 1877, it has been oft reprinted. There is a new, reasonably priced edition available through Amazon, one of several print versions. And as it has long passed into the public domain, it can also be obtained electronically at no charge from Project Gutenberg and other sites.

However one wishes to obtain it, the book is a classic of Arctic literature and worth seeking out. Hendrik’s is one of the few firsthand Native accounts we have of European expeditions, rendering it especially valuable, as is the fact that he was writing from the perspective of a hired hand, not a captain seeking glory.

Hendrik was hired by Kane in 1853. His world had been limited to Fiskernæs when he took the job and shipped out to help provide for his parents. At the time, the Native peoples of far-northern Greenland were isolated from their southern compatriots. Superstitions abounded in the south that the northerners were a dangerous people. Hendrik found them quite honest and kind, although as someone raised a Christian he worried for their souls. Still, when Kane prepared to turn south, Hendrik chose to remain.


He soon found a wife and they began a family. In 1860, a ship commanded by Isaac Israel Hayes, a veteran of Kane’s team, arrived and took Hendrik into employment, again as hunter and resident expert. During that winter, Hendrik went on an overland trip with the ship’s astronomer, who succumbed to the cold. The death, while in no manner Hendrik’s fault, cast a shadow on his reputation, although Hayes himself had high praise for Hendrik.

Despite lingering concerns, Hendrik was next engaged by Charles Francis Hall as part of the Polaris Expedition in 1871, which hoped to reach the North Pole. This is one of the legendary tales of Arctic survival. Hall took ill and died late in the year, but under new leadership the expedition persisted. It was the following fall when things went bad. Part of the expedition — including Hendrik, his wife and children — were atop an ice floe with materiel from the Polaris (the ship) that had been jettisoned as part of an emergency escape attempt, when the ship and the ice floe suddenly broke lose from each other. It was mid-October. The castaways would drift atop the floe, later relocating to a different one, for six Arctic winter months before being rescued.

It’s a horrible fate to imagine, even in our modern time. But despite many of the men being in poor condition, all aboard survived owing to the skills of Hendrik and a fellow Inuit. They kept killing seals and keeping the cook kettles filled with a meat that is both nutritious and, as luck would have it, a source of vitamin C, and hence a defense against scurvy.

After their rescue, Hendrik and the other Inuit were taken first to Washington, D.C., where they were feted as heroes. For Hendrik, the northeastern United States was as exotic as his own home was to American visitors. The longest chapter in this book concerns the Polaris Expedition and aftermath, and Hendrik provides vivid descriptions of survival on the floe and his impressions of America.

One can understand why Hendrik would have been hesitant to sign on for any further such adventures, but he reluctantly joined the British Arctic Expedition of 1885 under George Nares. Poorly equipped, the results were mixed, and deaths occurred. For Hendrik, who lived until 1889, it would be his final adventure with Arctic explorers.

Despite its brevity, “Memoirs of Hans Hendrik” is an instructive and important historical work. Hendrik only briefly mentions the cultural gaps with the Americans he worked alongside. He speaks well of each of his commanders, and they returned the praise. But some of the men never trusted him, and their suspicions were painful for him to endure. We also learn firsthand about hunting seals and polar bears from the ice, and musk oxen onshore — surprisingly, and contrary to logic, meat was sometimes left behind. We gain insight into famed commanders from a man who served under them. And Hendrik’s encounter with America reminds us that anthropological fascination can be directed at our nation as well.

But mostly we learn why McGoogan’s conclusion about the explorers who ventured into the Arctic is so on point. While Hendrik never brags or exalts himself, on four separate expeditions, including one that went horribly awry, he kept people fed. Without him, many would have died. We’re fortunate to have his story.

David A. James is a Fairbanks-based critic and freelance writer. He can be reached at nobugsinak@gmail.com.

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Ken McGoogan
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Remembering Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Remembering Lawrence Ferlinghetti


Lawrence Ferlinghetti, dead at 101. I remember meeting him in 1987, at Le Grand Derangement, the international Quebec City Conference on Jack Kerouac. I drew on that phantasmagoria in my novel Kerouac's Ghost. I got to hang out with Ferlinghetti because he and I were the only anglophone visitors who could speak French. The second time I met him was early 1988, when Ferlinghetti visited Calgary for the literary festival attached to the Winter Olympics. We chatted briefly, reminisced and laughed about Quebec City. But my favorite meeting came in 1995 in San Francisco, where I had gone to promote the second of four versions of Kerouac's Ghost. Back home in Calgary, still feeling the Beat, I wrote a short feature in second person. It ran under the headline Kerouac: His spirit is alive and well in San Francisco. . . .

You arrive in San Francisco knowing that, here, Jack Kerouac lives. Never mind that the legendary King of the Beats, best-known as the author of On the Road, died in 1969. In spirit, Kerouac lives forever in the City by the Bay. You're not here to prove it, but simply to revel in it, and to meet some of the people who are keeping his legacy alive. 

Front and centre is biographer Gerald Nicosia, who's embroiled in a legal battle to keep Kerouac's archive intact and accessible. Nicosia, author of Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac -- demonstrably the best of a raft of biographies -- lives with his wife and baby daughter just north of San Francisco in a comfortable old house that's loaded with character. He's finishing up a massive book about Vietnam veterans . . . but he's more emotionally engaged in trying to save Kerouac's books and papers from being sold off in profitable pieces . . . . 

Back in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood, the heart of Beat country, you and Nicosia join Neeli Chernovski in the Cafe Greco. He's best-known as the biographer of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the legendary American poet who founded -- and still owns -- the nearby City Lights Bookstore. Chernovski is going through page proofs -- a revised version of his biography of the late Charles Bukowski called Bukowski: A Life. . . .

You're enjoying your second double latte when who should wander into the cafe but Ferlinghetti himself, easily the most respected living writer who knew Kerouac personally. Ferlinghetti joins the table and reminisces about visiting Calgary during the 1988 Olympic Writers' Festival: ``They took us out to a lovely little town in the mountains -- Banff!" 

Ferlinghetti also brings tidings that the on-again, off-again movie version of On the Road, which Francis Ford Coppola is bent on making, is most recently off-again: ``He hasn't been able to get a good script.'' If and when he does, the betting is on Sean Penn to play the madman Dean Moriarity, and either Keanu Reeves or Johnny Depp to play the Kerouac figure, Sal Paradise. How can it miss?  

You head out to Golden Gate Park, where the De Young Museum is holding an exhibition called Beat Culture and the New America: 1950-1965. . . So The Beat (movement) goes on and on, yes, but what about the young? The next generation? One evening you fall in with Ken Kaplan, late 20s, who leads you from Vesuvio, Kerouac's old favorite watering hole, to one down-and-dirty blues club after another. Kerouac would have loved it. Another night, Jim Camp, an early-30s ex-teacher, ex-stockbroker, excitedly describes his novel-in-progress and trots out several chapbooks he's published as Synaethesia Press. One glance and you see the signs: they're Beat.  

Another day, back in North Beach, you spend an hour in City Lights bookstore, then cross Jack Kerouac Alley -- so-named after a long campaign, led by Ferlinghetti, involving many streets -- and return to Vesuvio, that crowded and colorful bar. Nicosia has described the corner where, habitually, Jack Kerouac sat. When it comes vacant, you get Jim Camp to take your picture there. Look out the window: Kerouac lives!  

Ferlinghetti photo: Clay Mclachlan/AP


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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.