There have been a number of new books come out lately, after a long time without any of interest, to me, at least. It must have been the pandemic that affected publishers in such a negative way. In my personal news, by the way, work is proceeding slowly on my book “The York Factory Express.” The publisher is still sick, however, and the staff are doing all the work. It seems possible (although I haven’t heard yet) that it will be out this spring. Let’s cross our fingers on that!
So, here is the first book I will speak of — Stephen R. Bown, The Company: the Rise and Fall of the Hudson’s Bay Empire [Canada: Doubleday (Penguin), 2020]. It is $28 in United States, and $37 in Canada. I am half way through reading this, and it has brought to my attention some very interesting facts that I have had to think about. For example, from a manuscript I collected in B.C. Archives, Augustus Peers describes the gardens at York Factory:
The interior of the square is intersected by wooden platforms, and in front of the General Store are two lots of ground enclosed by low pickets dignified by the flowery name of Gardens pro firma, but in which I could discover nothing but a good collection of rank weeds and a few turnips which made a feeble struggle for existence in a moist ungenerous soil.
Well, the ‘rank weeds’ might have been dandelions, which are not native to North America, Bown says, but which were brought in as food by the HBC. An interesting point to consider, but there is more. Before the HBC imported rum for their trade, the employees at York Factory drank gin. There is also a long chapter on Beavers and their pelts, which I found fascinating. Bown writes about the early diseases and epidemics that affected the HBC and its First Nations traders. He talks about the boundaries that the HBC men were contained by, by British law, and said that when the HBC competed with the NWC in the Athabasca District, where the rivers flowed north to the Arctic, they were trading outside the territories that they were licensed to trade in. Fascinating! In other words, this is not just a history, but it explains a lot of background to the history as well. It is also well written, and quite enjoyable.
The next book I found is titled: Beaver, Bison, Horse: the Traditional Knowledge and Ecology of the Northern Great Plains, by R. Grace Morgan [University of Regina Press, 2020]. This is an academic book; a book which is described by George Colpitts (who writes about Pemmican) as “an important study of the impact of beaver, bison, and horse on the lifeways of Indigenous people of the Northern Great Plains.” Another academic who wrote about Beaver said this:
Morgan’s Beaver, Bison, Horse is a brilliant, thorough investigation of the powerful ties that bind humans to their wild brethren on the Northern Plains. In synthesizing traditional knowledge with her own groundbreaking fieldwork, Morgan’s book serves as both a meticulous reconstruction of the precolonial world and a road map to the restoration of North American’s keystone species. Like a beaver pond spilling its banks, this book overflows with ecological insight and wisdom.
But for me, of course, I want to read about the horse! The book costs $25 in Canada, and I don’t see an American price on it, but if you live in the United States I am sure you can order it from www.uofrpress.ca.
The third book I have in hand is by Cassandra Tate, and is titled Unsettled Ground: the Whitman Massacre and its Shifting Legacy in the American West, [Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 2020]. This is a west of the Rocky Mountains book, of course, and the massacre of the missionaries at Waiilatpu Mission in November 1847 played an enormous role in the history of the Brigade trails in what is now the Pacific Northwest (Washington and Oregon), and British Columbia. I know the historical background to this attack and the epidemic of measles that caused it — it will be very interesting to discover what this author has to say of it many years later! Interestingly, the book is $25 in Canada, the same price as it is in United States.
I have barely had time to even look at Unsettled Ground, as I only just picked it up yesterday. But it’s nice to have a look-see to see what the writing is like. So, here is the introductory paragraph from the book:
Marcus Whitman was a Protestant missionary who might have been only a historical footnote had not he, his wife Narcissa, and eleven others been killed by Cayuse Indians during an attack on his mission near present-day Walla Walla, Washington, in 1847. Instead, he became one of the most memorialized figures in the Northwest. A county, a college, a national forest, half a dozen public schools, and numerous other enterprises — from an upscale hotel in Walla Walla to a church in Des Moines — carry his name. The Washington legislature once considered a measure to rename the iconic Mount Rainier in his honor. His former mission is a National Historic Site. His statue stands in the National Statuary Hall in the Capitol Building in Washington, DC, nine feet of gleaming bronze on a seven-ton block of polished granite, depicting a muscular, buckskin-clad frontiersman with a ripped torso and linebacker thighs. He appears to be striding resolutely along an unbroken trail, one foot higher than the other, buckskin fringe and kerchief flying, a Bible in one hand, saddlebags and a scroll in the other. His strong jaw is neatly bearded, his flowing locks topped by a beaver-skin hat. If the National Statuary Hall had a hunk contest, he’d be the winner, hands down.
The statue embodies Whitman’s place in the mythology of the West, not the realities of his life. The only feature that can be verified as historically accurate are the saddlebags, which were copied from a pair used by Whitman when the was an itinerate physician in upstate New York…
“Memory and story and history and fact have a fluid relationship,” the author goes on to say. “Heroes rise and fall to the rhythms of what scholars call ‘the politics of memory.’ New faces are revealed, old ones dissected, and stories reshaped (and sometimes forgotten altogether) as political and social conditions changed. The initial narrative, or ‘memory,’ about the Whitmans — as told by whites — emphasized their religiosity…” It will be very enjoyable to read this book, I think, and I look forward to it.
So the last book I have on my to-be-read list, which I have not even picked up yet, is this one: Icebound: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World, by Andrea Pitzer [Simon & Schuster, 2021.]
The human story has always been one of perseverance — often against remarkable odds. The most astonishing survival tale of all might be that of 16th-century Dutch explorer William Barents and his crew of sixteen, who ventured farther north than any Europeans before and, on their third polar exploration, lost their ship off the frozen coast of Nova Zembia [Russia] to unforgiving ice. The men would spend the next year fighting off ravenous polar bears, gnawing hunger, and endless winter.
The Barents Sea, in which William Barents and his men were trapped, is part of the Arctic Ocean north of Russia and Norway, so this is not a Canadian history book, but a book of Arctic history. Nevertheless, I think it will be a good read. I listened to the author as she spoke on CBC Radio yesterday morning. By the time I reached Munro’s Book, it had sold out. One of my books down the road includes information about the Franklin Expedition, in the Canadian Arctic. I think this will be an interesting addition to my library.
And have you notice: three of four authors I have mentioned here are women. That was not intentional, but I am glad it happened that way.
Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2021. All rights reserved.
- Thomas Lowe Rounds the Horn
- James Anderson’s Mountain Portage