Thursday, November 21, 2013

Book review: "True North" by Elliott Merrick

Elliott Merrick writes eloquently in "True North" on the wonders of nature, the joys of hard work and the freedom of exploration. But as a book, "True North" gives us both too much and too little.

As a young man in the 1920s, Merrick left the Manhattan working life and headed north to the remote Labrador region of Canada. "True North" is Merrick's diary of a hunting and trapping trip he and his wife, Kay, took in 1930-31 with trapper John Michelin.

The trip is hard toil through snow, ice and freezing wind, and simply finding their way and finding food and firewood are difficult tasks. But Merrick loves it.

"To ascend this road of beauty, this silent immaculate river, to see every day, every hour, some new spruce island by whose rocky shore the silver water croons, some bar piled high with white pebbles in the spring floods and plowed by the ice, some foam-crested rapid in the sunset, some quiet cove of birches at noon, to feel a part of it, costs something. It costs in backbreaking toil, in sweat and shivering cold, in hunger and wet, in aching knotted muscles. The price is pain. The question is, have you grit enough to love it, or must you hate it?"

But as lyrical as Merrick's writing can be, it soon becomes tedious. He tells us again and again and again how superior life in the wilderness is to life in the city. His descriptions of traveling through the snowy woods soon sound all alike.

Strangely, while Merrick is meticulous is describing what the three travelers do and see, we get little idea of who his companions are as people. The three of them spent months together in difficult circumstances, but there are few clues to John's and Kay's personalities.

The book is curiously lacking in drama. Even though they are often in hazardous situations and more than once seem to be lost, the perilous times are recorded rather dryly.

If you`re interested in tales of adventure in the frozen north, there are better choices. I recommend "Alaska Wilderness" by Bob Marshall, "The Last Gentleman Adventurer: Coming of Age in the Arctic" by Edward Beauclerk Maurice, "Tisha: The Story of a Young Teacher in the Alaska Wilderness" by Robert Specht, and "Two Against the Ice" by Ejnar Mikkelson.

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