Maps tell stories: their lines and names forge relationships between people and the land, and among disparate communities; they assert beliefs as well as scientific facts; they not only record what is there, but they also dream places into existence. These dreams are especially visible on historical maps drawn long before satellite images filled in the unknown terrain, but even now, the idea of a completely knowable world is an illusion. For all the tales they tell about desire, power, and human journeys, maps also conceal a great deal. The apparent composure of these smooth and beautiful images belies the hardship and conflict behind the creation of their geographical knowledge and the delineation and defence of their territories.
Adam Shoalts’s latest book, A History of Canada in Ten Maps, unearths such stories. In it we encounter the dreams, illusions, ambitions, bonds, conflicts, and failures undergirding some of the earliest European maps of what is now Canada. These maps, reproduced in a series of high-quality colour images at the centre of Shoalts’s book, range from a famous Viking map of the East Coast to one from John Franklin’s second Arctic expedition. Although most are the products of exploration (including Samuel de Champlain’s stunning map of New France, Peter Pond’s speculative river route to the Pacific, and David Thompson’s meticulous but now decaying map of the northwest, drawn with “ink made from growths found on apple trees”), one depicts Fort Erie, Ontario during its siege in the War of 1812—a reminder that the shape of the country was ultimately determined by armies and peace treaties. The mythical creatures (such as unicorns, ostrich-like birds, a whale with two blowholes) and intricate decorations of the earlier maps disappear in the later ones, showing the transformation of cartography from an art into an increasingly precise science. But as Shoalts shows, they are all rich reserves of myth.
After one reads this book, the maps at its centre take on new significance: the time and labour they represent (which encompasses the efforts not only of the explorers who drew them, but of many others, including voyageurs, Indigenous advisors and guides, women, and even children) become more visible, as do the landscapes, communities, and territories they traverse—Shoalts gives us vivid pictures of the intimate, sometimes messy on-the-ground realities that the maps all but conceal.
The stories behind these maps are not new; they have been told before, in original exploration narratives or in histories, or both. But Shoalts is both a gifted storyteller and an explorer in his own right, and his version is compelling on both counts. His prose is direct and swift-paced, warmly conversational and, at times, jocular (though with a few more nudges and winks than I’d like). He draws attention to compelling details, eccentricities, and dramas that lend a distinctive flavour to these figures and the history of which they were a part. His feel for geography is strong and physical. At one point he remarks: “It’s easy to forget that the geography of North America is so vast and varied—the distance from the Rockies to Montreal is the same as from Germany to Iran—that our modern sense of “Canada” projects onto it an artificial sameness that it never possessed for its early inhabitants, most of whom were, by necessity, acquainted only with small parts of it.” Shoalts’s History dispels this sameness; missing only the Prairies, it conveys both the variety of landscapes and First Nations cultures that inhabit them, and the partial and haphazard ways in which explorers came to know them.
That this account is animated by Shoalts’s investment in exploration and map-making is clear. Following the maps is a photograph of the author dragging his loaded canoe up a river through northern muskeg. Aligning his modern-day explorations with those of the past, this photograph suggests that we also read this book as a sort of genealogical project, charting a lineage of which he, too, for better and for worse, is a part.
None of its chapters detail his own explorations (which are the subject of his earlier book, Alone Against the North), but Shoalts’s depth of personal experience is arguably what brings the histories he describes to life. Although the book is narrated with much of the distance of a historical survey, the author’s ability to imagine not just what explorers and backwoods soldiers did but what it must have felt like to be them makes for riveting reading. He is an empathetic narrator who shares the insatiable curiosity and drive that propelled many of his subjects. Moreover, his understanding of the physical and mental pain and exhaustion they endured brings us to the visceral core of these human exploits.
He makes their experiences palpable, often uncomfortably so: the fear that must have gripped David Thompson and his companions when they contemplated wendigos or discovered footprints far larger than any grizzly’s (were they from a mammoth, or some unknown beast?); the nauseating terror and grief of those who saw their friends blasted and slaughtered by American militia at Fort Erie; the “foul stench” that emanated from Franklin and his men when they were reduced to “virtual walking corpses” on the tundra—all such scenes are rendered with vivid immediacy. Shoalts registers with particular force those details and plotlines that make readers turn pages, gasp, and shudder. I will give this book to my twelve-year-old son to read, but not before bed.
The brutality that Shoalts highlights is not merely a plot device, however: he wants his readers to contemplate “an era when violence was the norm” and survival woefully insecure, perpetually threatened by cold, hunger, disease, rebellion, mutiny, and the haphazard justice of a frontier in which disputes were frequently solved by duels. The land could be by turns breathtakingly beautiful and unremittingly harsh. Europeans, Canadians, and Indigenous peoples alike could be compassionately humane and startlingly cruel.
How much truth is there here? Shoalts anticipates his readers’ reservations most forcefully in his chapter on Samuel Hearne’s expedition to the Coppermine River. After quoting at length some of the most horrifying descriptions of Dene slaughtering Inuit from Hearne’s published account, he stresses that although many readers will find these descriptions “shocking,” archaeologists and oral histories confirm that such massacres took place, and, he adds, “there is absolutely nothing in [Hearne’s account] that can’t also be found in accounts from ancient Greece and Rome, the Vikings…or for that matter, contemporary conflict zones.” Some of the passages he quotes are controversial, however, because they embellish Hearne’s journals and field notes. As the literary scholar and historian I.S. MacLaren has pointed out, sensationalized descriptions (most famously, that of a teenaged Inuit girl “twining around” her murderers’ “spears like an eel”) appear to have been added by Hearne’s ghost writer, likely to satisfy his readership’s appetite for Gothic and exotic horror. While Shoalts is right not to minimize the acts of war and revenge that occurred during this period, he might have acknowledged not just that this one would not have happened without Hearne’s expedition but also that this narrative, like many others from this era, is not a historical document but rather one that begins the work of mythologizing that he continues here. While this book calls itself “a history,” Shoalts is clearly interested in the generative power of myth that lies still only half-formed in these stories. He eagerly anticipates, for instance, that “[i]n a couple of thousand years, when history has mingled with legend, [Alexander] Mackenzie might become to Canada what Odysseus is to Greece.”
Some of the book’s epic heroes are more sympathetic than others: Cartier was prone to piracy and kidnapping, Jean-François de La Roque de Roberval to unduly harsh punishment (he marooned his relative, Marguerite, on an uninhabited island for two years as punishment for an illicit love affair), Pond to volatility and murder, Franklin to inexcusable arrogance, and at least one of Franklin’s men to cannibalism. The generous and peaceable Champlain emerges as perhaps the clearest hero of this book (who could not like the founder of the Order of Good Cheer?), with Hearne and Mackenzie close behind. Although Shoalts is prone to romantic pronouncements—“The spirit of the Vikings, their restless wanderlust,” he gushes, “lives on in the spirit of Canadians who continue to search for traces of these ancient wayfarers”—he nonetheless gives us well-rounded portraits of men who erred as often as they succeeded, who relied heavily on their motley communities of fellow travellers, and who, while immortalized by history, more often than not died poor and unrecognized. Not surprisingly, the figures that succeeded the most admirably were those who forged the strongest relationships with Indigenous people, and who nurtured loyal networks of coureurs de bois, voyageurs, and guides. This is not a story of solitary heroes, but of alliances, collaborations, and partnerships that included important friendships and marriages.
It is undoubtedly a male-dominated history that Shoalts retells: men led these expeditions and drew these maps, and it is their perspectives that were preserved in published narratives. Yet there is some astonishing female heroism in these pages as well: Erik the Red’s daughter, Freydis, “disgusted with the cowardice of her male companions,” resolved to fend for herself; Marguerite de La Roque survived for two nearly solitary years on an island (her servant, lover, and their child were not so lucky) before fishermen rescued her and returned her to France; and one wife of Hearne’s Dene guide, Matonabbee, gave birth on Hearne’s Arctic expedition and kept up with the party after 52 hours of labour, “carrying her infant and everything else required of her.” The book is perhaps the most tantalizing in these moments, leaving the reader wondering about these women, and the stories they would have told.
The grand narrative of epic journeying is also somewhat tempered by Shoalts’s attention to the textures of everyday life. His efficient, page-turning prose affords glimpses of a different sense of time and space: the monotony of interludes between expeditions; long winters spent hunting and fishing, staving off scurvy and dysentery, and trying to keep spirits high; false starts and long trudges back to forts for resupply; and relationships between Europeans and Indigenous peoples that developed slowly rather than in sudden encounters. A few of the quieter parts of this book call to mind those languid scenes in Terrence Malick’s film, The New World, in which time seems to stretch out and grow heavy, days becoming fluid, existence a quiet and persistent response to rhythms of earth and weather unfamiliar to most of us now.
A History emerged in the wake of Canada’s 150th anniversary, but the best parts of this book are unconcerned with traditional nation-building narratives, nor do they provide unmitigated celebrations of the odysseys that led to Canada’s creation. The maps that anchor Shoalts’s story of Canada reveal a slowly evolving understanding of geography that remained incomplete even at the end of the thousand-odd year period that the book covers. They are linked threads of a history shaped not by the conquering of lands so much as by the land’s unknowability. If nations are narrations, as Benedict Anderson suggests, Shoalts’s version emphasizes the illusoriness of any unified vision of Canada, and instead reveals a country coming into being through the haphazard and random work of map-makers steeped in largely unattainable dreams.
Shoalts’s mythmaking is nonetheless limited by a version of history and wilderness that has long held sway in Canada, and it is a version that, for all of the messy contours it exposes, keeps white male exploits at its centre. Although he repeatedly points to the Indigenous knowledge upon which these men depended, the book is most prominently a celebration of white-explorer heroism: theirs are the lines on the map that matter, theirs the story that defines the relationship between people and land in what was to become Canada. Shoalts tells this story well, but without any of the kind of irony or critical reflection that might prompt readers to contemplate how much it erases. Some will justifiably question his cartographic selections: other maps—such as an Indigenous map (of which there are several in print, despite his apparent claim to the contrary), or one drawn by a woman (Elizabeth Simcoe comes to mind)—would yield not only different histories, but also different senses of land and space.
These other maps might not lead to that unattainable and mythologized place that Shoalts calls “wilderness.” He is drawn to explorers because they accessed what he ultimately argues—unfortunately without the nuance that might have rescued him from triteness—is Canada’s wild “heart.” The irony that he might have registered, in the end, is that the history of exploration, while it brought many men and women into close contact with what they thought of as wilderness but others thought of as land and home, also facilitated the imperial and colonial expansion that was this wilderness’s undoing. Hearne was looking for minerals, many others for a trade route to China; Thompson’s maps of the northwest would draw others not included in these pages who were looking for—and found—arable land destined for mass agricultural expansion. The very men who charted the so-called wilderness also foreshadowed its demise. This is a story not as easily spotted on Shoalts’s maps, but it’s there, too, nestled with all the others in the tangle we call Canada.