Houseboat Chronicles: Notes from a Life in Shield Country

by Jake Macdonald
ISBN: 0771054041

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A Review of: Houseboat Chronicles: Notes from a Life in Shield Country
by Andrew Lesk

A book that is more than deserving of the 2003 Writers' Trust Award for Non-Fiction, Jake MacDonald's Houseboat Chronicles: Notes from a Life in Shield Country is that rarity that is simply good literature. It's not just that the author remarkably evokes a place rich in symbolism-the great Canadian North-but that he does so literarily: his memoir is note-perfect and, like the most enchanting of reads, it exhilarates with its unsentimental evocations of both place and time.
MacDonald begins, where else, but with childhood, with a Grade 6 drawing assignment in art class. His imaginary landscapes, funny and precise, evolve into the history of the family camp on the north shore of Laclu. This hands-on education in rural geography educates the reader as well. When MacDonald writes that he "developed an expanded sense of the possibilities that the world offered" he's giving us his view of what Shield country is like, and he does this with a style that reminds one of the deceptive plainness of a Gore Vidal essay.
Of course MacDonald is not doing what Vidal does in United States. Nevertheless, he deftly taps into our ongoing fascination with, at the very least, the idea of the North. He writes early on that he "no longer know[s] where to go, or what the truth is. But by a process of elimination, [he has] worked [his] way through places where the truth isn't." The "pathway into the wilderness" appears most promising. So he decides to "head for the wilderness," adding that "It'll be [his] salvation."
MacDonald knows that his attempts to find salvation-his grown-up attempts at roughing it-will result in failure. He teaches us, though, that in the end it is really about the journey, not the destination. Sitting in his car at the side of the road, he ponders his future in education at the University of Manitoba. He reflects that "people get lost because they get caught up in the details." The old adage-"You can't see the forest for the tress"-becomes not only figuratively instructive but literally so. MacDonald ditches his education for a life in Minaki in order to clear himself of the clutter in his life. In a digression so seamless that you forget that you've left the author on the side of the road, MacDonald gives the reader a history of Shield country and describes the allure it holds for him. The rest of the book is an account of his sojourn in and around Minaki, in Northern Ontario.
First, he camps alone on Tower Island, on a lake not far from civilization. A series of mishaps keep him there for a number of weeks. His solitary stay provides a fascinating glimpse of what it is like to be alone and at home with one's self. This isn't a two-week vacation in cottage country, after all. In one of the memoir's most engrossing digressions (and there are many of them), MacDonald turns from his encounter with a bear to a potted history of bears in Shield country and to Native bear lore. We forget that he is on Tower Island with a bear encroaching; instead, we're facing the legendary Nanuq.
MacDonald spends much of his time at Minaki employed as a guide, and preoccupied with building a ramshackle houseboat. He tells us that in the wilderness, people are at the bottom of the chain, not the top. It is the smaller forms of life, around since time immemorial, that have survived and will prosper long after we are gone. Wisely he observes that vacationing people searching for those spiritual "Aha!" moments will be disappointed. Even living out in the wilderness cannot guarantee them-though one may eventually get close through a constant engagement with nature-that sought-after spiritual experience. There is a difference, he notes, between not getting lost in the details and seeing God in the details. Whereas the former suggests how to overcome or cleanse oneself of the trials and tribulations of urban life; the latter requires a more passive and respectful approach to the everyday natural world.
Houseboat Chronicles is a story about shedding clutter by availing oneself not only of the myths of our true North but of the North itself through actual experience. MacDonald gives his readers a precious gift, a book so lively and life-affirming that we end up believing in its message. This memoir is itself one of those "Aha!" moments.

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