Giant Nerd Alert! I've been reading Canadian History!
Gasp you say? I know, its pretty bizarre even for nerdy ol' me, but ever since I was in the mountains in June I've gotten a tiny urge to pique my slight interest in Canadiana. Actually, in reality it is impossible to be in view of the Rocky Mountains and not think in the back of your mind what it must have been like for those first brave European explorers who first crossed these majestic mountains.
Epic Wanderer: David Thompson and the Mapping of the Canadian West is a great biography of a pretty interesting man who was one of the first men who greatly shaped the country of Canada. He first moved to Canada at the age of 14 to work for the Hudson's Bay Company at remote trading posts when there was hardly any European settlement west of Lake Winnipeg. Through hard work and skill Thompson worked his way up from trading post clerk to an aspiring surveyor, he traveled through most of Western Canada surveying most rivers and trading routes to the Rockies before being the first European to follow the Columbia River to the Pacific. It is remarkable to any Canadian, knowing how vast and difficult the land is to travel now, let alone by the canoe Thompson depended upon, that so much of the country could be travelled by one man and mapped to scientific perfection with such simple technology. Thompson went on to produce the first map of Western Canada for the Northwest Trading Company, but would never earn any money from it nor receive any acclaim for this accomplishment during his lifetime. He died almost penniless, but thankfully left a wealth of journals or else history might have never known his important contributions.
D'Arcy Jenish objectively portrays Thompson, and through the quoting of Thompson's journals shows a man of great integrity, determination, and intelligence. Thompson's integrity towards his family is notable, since most white men of that time would often leave their native wives and children behind after they had earned their riches in the fur trade, but Thompson brought his wife and children on much of his travels and valued his family life throughout his life. He also had a great gift of faith. In all his travels through vast wilderness, he always documented his prayers in his journals, always giving his next leg of discovery over to God's care.
The book moves along quite well and gives a full overview of Thompson's life which is interesting in that his momentous discoveries did little to advance him once he returned to live in civilization. My only qualm with Jenish's writing in general is a lack of geographic reference. I think I know Canadian geography quite well, and especially western Canada which is what the book deals with mostly, but Jenish continually uses the geographic terms of Thompson's day which give the reader little to go by and I was left many times wondering if Thompson was nearer Lake Winnipeg or Lake Athabasca. However, the sheer amount of Thompson's travels would have meant an almost constant translation of locations which could prove disastrous for the narration. This book helped me appreciate a figure in Canadian history that often is overlooked but whose contributions were monumentally important to the development of the country.