Prisoners of the North

By Pierre Berton

Prisoners of the North is one of Pierre Berton’s historical sketchbooks, like the earlier collections My Country and The Wild Frontier. The biographical essays here deal with five people “obsessed” with Canada’s North. Or really six people, since the Dawson-bred Berton, the North’s greatest chronicler, has to be counted among their number. “Time and again my heritage has intruded into my literary output,” he remarks in his Foreword, “I, too, in my own way am a prisoner of the North.”

Canada’s favourite historian starts off sounding a familiar note with “Klondike” Joe Boyle: “Had he been born American it is probable that he would have been claimed by Hollywood and turned into a popular icon, like Davy Crockett. . . . Yet in Canada he is largely forgotten.” And yet Boyle, who built the largest gold dredges in the world during his brief reign as King of the Klondike, seemed to largely forget Canada (and the family and business he left behind) during his subsequent adventures in Romania during the Great War. His time in the North was just one chapter in his remarkable life story.

Boyle’s story most closely resembles that of Robert Service, another wanderer who struck it rich in the Klondike, albeit it in a more spectacular and permanent way. As Berton remarks, “The literary gold he panned was better than any prospector’s.” Service wasn’t a prisoner of the North so much as a prisoner of his own success. “Perhaps the best-known English-language poet of the twentieth century, and certainly the richest,” his reputation today is mainly based on his first two published poems, “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” and “The Cremation of Sam McGee”, which he wrote while working in a bank in Whitehorse. With success he too left the North for good, to spend most of the rest of his days in Europe.

Berton re-works a lot of old material in the Service essay, including another character sketch of the poet that appeared in an earlier collection. We also go over a lot of familiar ground in the chapter on Lady Jane Franklin, wife of the famously lost polar explorer and a major character in The Arctic Grail. Her obsession was not with the North but with discovering her husband’s fate and attempting to secure his reputation as the discoverer of the Northwest Passage.

Also included is an essay on Vilhjammer Stefansson, “the last of the old-time explorers,” and John Hornby, the “hermit of the tundra.”

In his summing up Berton describes all five characters as “rugged individualists – impatient of authority, restless, energetic, and ambitious.” They were all eccentric loners with few if any intimate relationships, but the most eccentric and lonely of all was Hornby. Hornby was also the truest prisoner of the North, and his tragic tale of obsession is an uncanny foreshadowing of Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild.

There is a lot here that journeys down Arctic trails Berton has been down before, but we might excuse some repetition in what is his fiftieth book. In addition to being five intriguing personalities, his subjects here were all mythic figures, writing (and occasionally re-writing) history as they wrote themselves into the landscape of the North. “The North, in its turn, gave them something they might hope for but did not expect – a measure of immortality.”

Review first published November 6, 2004.

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