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A History of Canada in Ten Maps: Epic Stories of Charting a Mysterious Land.

Adam Shoalts, A History of Canada in Ten Maps: Epic Stories of Charting a Mysterious Land. Toronto: Penguin Random House Canada, 2017, 352 pages. ISBN 78-0-14-319398-2, $22.00 (paperback)

For too many people, maps are flat and so is Canadian history. However, a reading of explorer Adam Shoalts' new book, A History of Canada in Ten Maps will quickly banish such notions. Shoalts invites the reader into ten distinct stories of brave and daring adventurers, adding his own passion for exploration and comprehensive historical knowledge to make this a compelling read. Using his ten carefully selected maps as springboards, Shoalts propels the reader into epic stories in an early landscape quite alien to the Canada we know today.

A History of Canada in Ten Maps is not a work of cartographical history. Very little ink is spilled over investigating the maps themselves or in their creation, aside from a page or two at the close of each chapter. In short, do not expect a close analysis of ten maps. They are treated only as vessels for story and, as such, quite briefly alluded to. The true essence of the book is captured in the subtitle: "Epic Stories of Charting a Mysterious Land."

While Shoalts has a fondness for maps, he would rather explore the explorers--from the Norse of the Sagas in the early 11th century, ending with the Franklin expedition of the mid-19th century. Each chapter leads us into the colourful and trying lives of a handful of early adventurers, the maps they carried or created, what victories made them, what hardships broke them, and ultimately how they added to the nascent knowledge of the Canada of their time. The author outlines a brief historical background surrounding each era and map, with just enough detail to be interesting and tightly relevant. His style flows quickly and is packed with action. As thrilling as these individual tales are, they could be further enriched by Shoalts' many personal experiences in remote wilderness, perhaps drawing parallels between the historical adventure, deep joys, and hardships.

The maps are nicely presented in full colour with captions at the center of the book. They include the Skalholt Map, Pierre Descelier's world map (1550), Samuel de Champlain's map of New France (1632), Jacques-Nicolas Bellin's map of New France (1755), Peter Pond's map of the Northwest (1790), Samuel Hearne's map of the Coppermine River (1795), a map of America published with Alexander Mackenzie's accounts (1801), David Thompson's Map of the Northwest (1814), a copy of a British military map of Fort Erie and surroundings (1815), and a 'Map Shewing the Discoveries Made by British Officers in the Arctic Regions' (1828) which had accompanied Franklin.

The first map is the Skalholt Map, preserved by 16th and 17th century Icelandic works, which were based on now lost original Viking maps or knowledge. We learn of the early seafaring exploits, the 'sunstones' used in early navigation for directional location on overcast days, and the uneasy interactions with the local inhabitants. Locations like Helleland and Vinland are explored in more depth in relation to the extant map and what we know in writings from the Sagas.

We are then swept forward more than half a millennia, just beyond the Middle Ages, and into the world of Cartier and the early modern trailblazers. The ever-increasing demand in the markets of Europe for exotic goods like silk, spice, and porcelain, had created a need to push west and map a more expedient, less threatening link to the Indies. Scientific inventions like astrolabes and the discovery and mastery of the trade winds brought the courage to sail far from the sight of land, unlike the island hopping strategy of the Norse.

The search for profit and wealth drove empires to the shores of the New World, as it did individuals. The stakes were high, but so were the risks. Fortune and glory were always one misstep from death. Scurvy tortured Cartier's expedition. As for Thompson, aside from the regular threat of grizzlies and alleged mammoths, a cannibalistic wendigo psychosis drove his companions to dangerous madness. Starvation stalked even the most well prepared. Provisions themselves were subject to theft, rot, marauding wildlife, or lost to rapids.

As empires expanded on the continent, it was not only European conquest at play. Boundaries between rival Indigenous nations had been established before European arrival, and trespassers were not welcome. The Inuit were bitter enemies of the Dene travelers alongside Hearne and Matonabee, and were to be killed or avoided entirely. Navigating past the omnipresent, hostile Iroquois in what is now New York State had threatened the life of Champlain and his fragile assembly of allies, as well as the stability of New France itself. The risks were always high, and lives were taken in an instant--something to be learned quickly by an explorer, or learned too late.

If one had the stamina and composition to withstand such trials and continue breaking ground, the reward of riches or fame were never guaranteed. Many of these explorers risked all and never found what they had set out to find. Hearne followed after an alleged deposit of copper, but died without ever finding it. Cartier had laden his ships with quartz and iron pyrite, mistaking the minerals for diamonds and gold. Mackenzie found not the great river to the Pacific as was promised by Pond's map, but rather the desolate icy shores of the Arctic, and later renamed the waterway "Disappointment River." Franklin, in spite of his steadfastness and tough military training, was no match for the harsh and unyielding climate of the high Arctic.

But with natural perils came natural wonders, awaiting discovery by the Europeans. Explorers like Champlain, Hearne, and Mackenzie were astonished by the natural marvels in wildlife. Alligator gars fish, giant Hellbender salamanders, Carolina Parakeet and many other species never before seen in Europe. Mackenzie wondered at the strange skulls with long teeth he had witnessed in the far north--walrus. Hearne devoted much time and paper to the "principal quadropeds," detailing the habitats and behaviours of beaver, bison, muskox, and a plethora of other northern animals, quadroped or otherwise. Fascinated by what abounded, they recorded and contributed greatly as pioneers of zoology on the new continent.

Other marvels were geographic. Having crossed the continent, Mackenzie's first glimpse of the long anticipated Pacific Ocean, would have been awe-inspiring. Peter Pond remarked he had seen the largest falls in the world after coming upon Virginia Falls on the Athabasca River, standing twice the height of Niagara Falls. The vast and rugged, pristine and diverse wilderness of Canada, from towering mountain ranges to open prairie, to old growth rainforests, were a magnificence contrasted to a Europe largely depleted of forest and hurried with populous cities and towns.

The compulsion to know the unknown is a deep and common ingredient in the human spirit, and Shoalts' skill as a storyteller draws us back and allows us to share the spirit of these legendary men of history. We walk in their shoes, we sail in their ships, we sit alongside in their canoes, and we know their innermost fears, their overarching wonder, their hesitations, their failures. The maps become men.

Alexander McPhie

Winnipeg, Manitoba
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Author:McPhie, Alexander
Publication:Manitoba History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2019
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