Travelling Up North, Back in Time and With Pierre Berton

If you are either a North or a Berton-phile, do I have the book for you: The Mysterious North by Pierre Berton.

I am not a huge Berton fan.  I have found some of his books great and some of them are a tedious bore.  Nevertheless he is a Canadian icon and he did do much to explain my country.  Born in the north (the Yukon), he was part of that great generation which grew up poor, went to war and then built a country.

This particular book is a series of essays and articles he wrote, mostly for Maclean’s Magazine, from 1947 to 1954.  This is a gold age before he become to much icon and not enough Berton.  He discusses a series of trips and provides some excellent vignettes about not only the territories but also about cities such as Edmonton before Leduc #1 changed its character.  After each chapter is an updated post script (circa 1989) which its self is a time capsule.

Some tidbits to look out for:

  • Writing in the classic Berton style the pre-dates the stuffy political correctness.  The first nation people are Indians and they are presented as the good, the bad and the ugly.  In other words closer to real people.
  • How far things have changed.  Writing just at the end of WWII, he calmly explains that a highway was needed and one was built (the Alaskan).  Oil was needed to build the highway and a pipeline was built to provided (the Canol Pipeline).  Employment was needed to so mines were sought out and built.
  • The lost opportunities to make the north self-sufficient.  Muskox meat taste likes beef, reindeer can be herded and a 1950’s guess of arable land in the north suggested that there are a million acres of it.  To the latter, unfortunately it is not contiguous but it has upwards of 86 frost free days a year (more with a warming climate).

Great maps, great classic Berton writing style and a good read.  Well recommended (particularly on a sweltering July evening with a cold beer).