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Canada and the Idea of North

by Sherrill E. Grace
341 pages,
ISBN: 0773522476


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Going to the North Country
by Eric Miller

A childhood acquaintance of mine, staring out the car window for faunal and floral proofs, used to exclaim, "We're in boreal forest now! We're in the boreal forest!" And simply to register this instant of entry was a triumph to him. It meant Olive-sided Flycatchers, not Great Crested; it meant Grey Jays, not Blue; it meant that hemlock ceded ground to the odoriferous Balsam Fir. The more northern, so the idea evidently went, the greater the degree, somehow, of incarnationłof reality. But another friend dismissed the monotony of spruce, rock and bog, finding it so boring as to affront the intellect unforgivably. To her, no amount of "deep breathing on the landscape" could ever compensate for so broad, so entangled and so sparse a vista, whose most intimate impingement was the transgression of hectic insects. Sherrill E. Grace, in Canada and the Idea of North, belongs to the party of celebrants, although (admiring, as she does, Glenn Gould's multi-vocal Solitude Trilogy, scripted for the CBC) she allows dissenters of all kinds to have their say. She prefers a needle of many norths to the notion of a "true" North. Throughout her compendious work, she retains the capital "N" to signal the artificiality of anyone's partisan sense of nordicity. She prefers R. Murray Shafer's claim that "all the energy of the world radiates from the Magnetic North Pole"łthat shifting and tricksterish entityłto an aspiration of nailing the one-and-only topographic North Pole.
In fact, not as a rationale, but as a point of departure, Grace might have chosen for her epigraph Friedrich Nietzsche's hyperborean maxim from the year 1888: "Beyond the north, ice, and deathłour life! our happiness!" It is Grace's praiseworthy, though perhaps by now predictable, goal to rupture or, better, to melt, her reader's sense of what the possessive "our" now might mean, in connection with the North. Grace is dedicated to going "beyond"łbeyond the clutter of stereotypes among the floes in which much commentary has become stuck, like the ships of an ice-bound expedition. She acknowledges the third-world condition to which European imperialism, in its many phases, has reduced indigenous peoples, and continues, with light adjustments, to reduce them. She entertains Frank Davey's dismissal of the whole concept of Canada, northern or not, as an outworn fable, at once coercive and inaccurate. Her idea of North obeys the revelations of chronology, beginning with an inspection of the Canada-First cant of Robert Grant Haliburton (1869), and concluding with the likes of Thomson Highway, whose Kiss of the Fur Queen (1998) rejoins with pan-technical panache to a history of lethal projections from the South.
Grace reaches out to embrace the celebrated and the obscure, from the films of Peter Mettler to the cibachrome photographs of Jin-Me Yoon to the fiction of Elizabeth Hay. Such inclusiveness is more than a gesture of generosity: it enlivens in the reader an inklingłor boreal aurorałof unexplored pleasures which, in themselves, may not always manifest mastery or permanence, but which may nonetheless provide support, like an adequate crust on snow, to those who wish to make passage, later, over the same or similar ground. Of course, the reader wishes occasionally to supplement Grace's canon of worksłwhere is John Steffler's Afterlife of George Cartwright, for example? But Grace herself gracefully concedes the material and aesthetic impossibility of exhaustiveness.
A couple of more persistent defects emerge in the midst of many virtues. Grace indulges an anxious need to tell her reader exactly what her intentions are, almost as though she were being deposed. She narrates what she is already doing: she provides her own colour commentary: she anticipates some unknown third party's recapitulation of her argument. At times, the effect approaches Andy Warhol's deadpan mode:
In what follows I want to offer an alternative reading of the discovery of gold in the Klondike and of women's and native participation in the story of the Yukon. It is a reading, a retelling, that tries to displace some of the most familiar statements in the discursive formation of North by re-placing the story in a Canadian context as one of the most significant events in our history. I offer it as an addition to the ongoing retellings of the Gold Rush already begun by Ann Brennan, among others, in her recuperative history of the Canadian Katherine Ryan in The Real Klondike Kate. In focusing upon Kate Carmack, who is like Katherine Ryan insofar as she has largely been erased from Yukon history and the story of the Klondike, I am reintroducing her into the dis
course, and thereby disrupting the formation itself by modifying the familiar statements about discovery, gold, and white masculine adventure in Service's land of the midnight sun.

Grace might have simply gone ahead and done what she intended to do, raising no such impressive but empty chambers for calisthenic self-consciousness. She might better have emulated the loon that, from the observer's vantage, disappears beneath the waves to emerge somewhere else, the interval being elided by the imponderable magic of ellipsis. Explicitness is not the most inevitable excellence.
Likewise, Grace occasionally patronizes the past. Her condescension speaks with a particularly academic accent. Of the admirable W.L. Morton, she remarks: "in an astonishingly post-structuralist, Lacanian move (both avant la lettre, to be sure), he theorizes the difference of North as lack, void, vacuum, and puts the rhetorical question: 'How ą can ą freezing emptiness ą arctic void ą silent space ą mean anything at all?'" Morton's Canadian Identity came out in 1961. To credit him so lavishly, in both of Canada's official languages, with anticipating Jacques Lacan is somewhat comical. Inquiries concerning the interpretation of voidness and of vacuum go back in literature to the epoch of the pre-Socratics, and have occupied theologians of many stripes for millennia. Grace risks sounding like those literary critics who placed laurels atop the great busts of Victorian writers, for almost articulately expressing some recent insight of Sigmund Freud's. But Grace's idea of North is sufficiently magnetic that, like an orienteer over varied terrain, the reader forgives the moments of impasse in pursuit of a passion that comes to be shared. ņ

Eric Miller teaches at the University of Victoria; his translation of Linnaeus's Nemesis Divina came out in 2002.
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