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Dead Lucky: Life after Death on Mount Everest – Lincoln Hall

23 February 2016

A friend of mine brought in several books the other day and we made a trade. He got a book on creativity, and I got a couple for the shop and one for my Everest shelf in my personal library.

I think he suspected that’s where this one would end up.

You see, Peter always comes into the shop when I’m unpacking an interesting lot; he must smell them as he walks past the door. He comes straight to my desk, picks up the choicest item (to my mind), and says, “How much is this one, Elizabeth?” and I respond, “I’m sorry Peter. <add put-off excuse here>” Once he even got tetchy with me.  I do feel really badly to be denying him a great read. But my selfish streak is more powerful. It’s the collector in me. And I do love my polar exploration and mountaineering books. I really am sorry, Peter.

I like to think this book was his way of saying, “I understand.” LOL Maybe he was saying thank you because I finally let go and sold him one from my Antarctic collection.

I have a particular fascination for Everest, so Dead Lucky got a bump up my reading list – right to the top. And it didn’t disappoint.

Dead LuckyLincoln Hall was part of a pioneering Australian Everest expedition in 1984. The expedition had a bittersweet ending for him: he was the only one of who didn’t summit. He got on with his life, of course, climbing other great mountains, getting married and starting a family, becoming an author and the editor of an Outdoor Australia magazine, and so on. Always tugging at his subconscious, though, was the summit of the world’s highest peak. Deep down, Hall still craved the view from the Top of the World. To be able to say, “Yes, I climbed Everest,” and then, “Yes, I did make the summit!”

His opportunity came with a 2006 expedition, as a cameraman filming the ascent of a teen who hoped to become the youngest ever to summit. He answered the call, even though he really didn’t feel that he was as prepared as he should be.

There are several things I really like about this book. Reading it, I felt more like a friend talking to Lincoln about the whole experience of climbing. He shares his concerns about his readiness, his rationale, his family, his hallucinations on the mountain, his insecurity over the effect of his words and actions on others while he suffered the effects of cerebral edema, how his beliefs came into play and affected his survival…. He is frank. Readers become a part of the experience, perhaps feeling a little off balance at times but never to the point that we are overwhelmed. The harsh reality of climbing in the Death Zone is there. Fortunately, we have a good guide we can trust, very much like Lincoln Hall himself did.

There are betrayals both real and perceived in this story, too, some of which are resolved, others that Hall understands he will never understand. He accepts that and walks away from them. That latter response was one that took a strength of character not surprising, perhaps, in one who has survived something no other climber ever has. Any one of the four conditions he suffered from should have killed him. In fact, he was believed to be, and abandoned as, dead above 28,000 feet. Lincoln Hall’s response to betrayal, more than anything else in the book, has given me a lesson I will be thinking about for some time, all the more so because it wasn’t intended as a lesson, just as a statement of how he coped with what happened to him.

Finally, it’s about drama in real life. People who have so much going for them throwing their lives at a 29,000 foot mountain of rock, ice, snow, thin air, and incredible danger. I still don’t understand that. I probably never will. And what I don’t understand often fascinates me. I never could turn down a good mystery.

Portage Into the Past: By Canoe along the Minnesota-Ontario Boundary Waters – J. Arnold Bolz

17 February 2016

I’m always on the lookout for regional history, both for my personal library and the book shop. I was tidying up my shelves the other day when I came across this one. I’d forgotten I had it. Not only that but, since it is the only one I’ve ever come across, I’d forgotten such a book even existed. I began to read…

I wish I’d known about it when I first started learning about this area’s history. Originally published by the University of Minnesota Press in 1960, Portage into the Past serves as a wonderful little introduction to the Fur Trade era and the Boundary Dispute that made this portion of the Canada/US border one of the last to be determined. And it does all this in a very novel manner.

Bolz, J. Arnold. Portage into the Past (Minneapolis, U of MN Press, 1960) Sixth Ptg. 1979.

If you find a copy, this is a wonderful introduction to Boundary Waters history!

The author and his wife are both outdoor enthusiasts and history buffs. Bolz has spent years amassing a library of original source material about the route between Lake Superior and Rainy Lake. They decide to invite a friend who runs an outdoor tripping business to go with them on a five-day canoe trip following the trade route. They plan to introduce him to the region’s history through reading excerpts from the diaries and journals of early travellers and surveyors around the campfire each night and at various stops that they make along the way.

The result is that readers experience a wonderful blend of the past and the route as it had become by 1958. Their friend also ends up catching the history bug, and by the end of the trip he, too, is taking a turn at reading the passages aloud. All three of them spend their breaks from paddling trying to find the exact location described by Henry, Hind, Delafield or any of a number who left a footprint on the trail over the past 250 years.

The book is illustrated by Frances Ann Hopkins, John Bigsby and Francis Lee Jaques, all of whom travelled through at some point in their careers during each of the three periods of history covered.

While the book offers only a superficial history of the Boundary Waters, it does so in an entertaining manner that encourages readers to go farther, and provides an excellent list of primary sources to facilitate further study.

Finders Keepers 2 – Castaway

20 January 2016

Dear Shipmate:
Re: Polynesia
Enclosed herewith is check in the amount of $250. which is being refunded to you and represents your deposit for a Deck Cabin aboard the Polynesia for the cruise of March 9, 1982.
By the time we received your deposit for a Deck Cabin, we had already received deposits for these accommodations.
We are sorry that you are not cruising with us as planned, but we do look forward to your Windjammin’ with us at some future date.

Manitoba Trip – Mary Agnes Fitzgibbon

28 January 2012

[Originally published in Lake of the Woods Area News Magazine]

The Strickland siblings Samuel and Catherine Parr have left a solid imprint in Canadian Literary history. Their sisters Elizabeth and, more notably, Agnes were well-known contemporaries on the English literary scene. But it is Susanna, married to John Wedderburn Dunbar Moodie, who is most widely recognized by Canadian readers for her book Roughing it in the Bush.

The Moodies’ daughter, Agnes Dunbar, married Charles Thomas Fitzgibbon, and illustrated Catherine Parr Traill’s famous book Canadian Wildflowers (1868). The aunt-niece duo collaborated again to publish Studies of Plant Life in Canada (1885).

Given the family’s propensity for writing, and their predilection for the wild spaces of Canada, is it any surprise that one of them should end up in our neck of the woods just as the railway was being built to open up the West?

The Fitzgibbons’ eldest child, Mary Agnes (born 18 June 1851, she used first one and then the other name during her career) was 25 when she ventured northwest to act as governess to a CPR contractor’s children at the Deception Lake railway camp. Her memoir of this experience, and her first book, A Trip to Manitoba (1880), notes the Oxford Companion to Canadian History and Literature, has been “praised as one of the best travel books relating to Manitoba”. Sadly, Northwestern Ontario readers often overlook this wonderful work because the title is now misleading. We must remember that, at the time Fitzgibbon was here, Manitoba laid claim to an area much further east than its current boundary with Ontario. So, Manitoba Trip actually provides a first-hand account of life at an important transition in our region’s history!

Open it up and relish it; Fitzgibbon’s is a wonderful narrative.

The Canadian (rear) and British First Editions

Her account illustrates the route people took if they were in a hurry to get from Toronto to Deception Lake in those days: all aboard for Sault Ste. Marie by train, then into the US and overland to the Mississippi, up that river by steamboat, over to the Red and up to Winnipeg once more by steamboat. Then travellers climbed into the waggons for a vertebrae-crushing ride over the corduroy Dawson Trail southeast to Northwest Angle, by boat to Clearwater Bay and overland to the camp at Deception Lake. Her observations of the country and the people she met along the way are personal and lively; full of humour and empathy, too.

One of the most delightful surprises for me was her account of visiting the Darlington CPR camp. Years ago I found the old railway camp site and brought it to the attention of the Regional Archaeologist. What a thrill to read a first-hand account of it alive as a community and of the canoe trip Mary made from there to landmarks I grew up haunting! It also was interesting to learn that the place names hadn’t changed over the century in time separating us.

Most of her narrative centres in Deception Lake, though. She captures with clarity and vivacity the lifestyle and the characters with whom she lived and worked or who visited that outpost. We can see them smiling around their pipe-stems and smell the tobacco smoke, too. Readers will sense that the stalwart nature and spirit of adventure Mary admires in them unconsciously reflects qualities ingrained in her own character.

Just a few people are mentioned by name, and I suspect those were changed to protect identities. Even her employers are mentioned only as Mr. and Mrs. C___ in that annoying Victorian habit. The value of this book would be increased exponentially if only she’d given us their names. Ah, well….

Another interesting element in Manitoba Trip’s history is related through one of the stories the book tells. On March 26, 1877 Fitzgibbon’s notes were burned when a fire started by sparks from the chimney engulfed the C___’s Deception Lake home. Without those notes, the author was forced to work from memory. The details she weaves into her account are convincing; her experiences must have been deeply imprinted!

Fitzgibbon remained at Deception Lake for a year and a half before returning to civilization in Southern Ontario. She refined her story for her publishers in London, England. A slightly later Canadian edition appended the subtitle “Roughing it on the Line” just to underscore her literary roots.

She continued in her mother’s footsteps by helping her great aunt Catherine Parr Traill prepare her last two books for publication: Pearls and Pebbles (1894) and Cot and Cradle Stories (1895). Fitzgibbon didn’t stop writing herself, though. In 1894 her biography of her grandfather, A Veteran of 1812; The Life of James FitzGibbon was published. It remains the book for which she is best known, although she wrote or co-wrote numerous other articles and at least four other books over the span of her career.

Throughout her life Mary maintained that women offered an important perspective and possessed unique opportunities through which to preserve history. She strove to engage her sex in what was then a male dominated area of interest. To that end, along with Sarah Anne Curzon, she established the Women’s Canadian Historical Society of Toronto in 1895 and served as its first Secretary. She certainly proved her point through Manitoba Trip. It remains one of the only preserved written accounts of its period in Lake of the Woods’ regional history – a wonderful legacy – and, unarguably, a railway history written from a very different perspective!

Detail view of the pictoral giltwork on the Canadian First Edition's front board.

Mary Agnes Fitzgibbon died on 17 May, 1915, aged 63, of a cerebral haemorrhage. She was just six months into her own presidency over her beloved historical society.

Manitoba Trip is out of print now. The original edition runs up to about $160, but print-on-demand copies are available for much less. Since there are no illustrations in the book (illustrations seldom reproduce well in print-on-demand copies), the latter option makes for a reasonably-priced cottage read!

Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country: Travelling in the Land of my Ancestors – Louise Erdrich

14 January 2012

[Originally published in Lake of the Woods Area News Magazine]

I don’t sell a lot of new books anymore; unless they relate to this part of Northwestern Ontario my stacks are strictly used and out-of-print. As a result, publishers have forgotten about me and seldom contact me when something in my area of interest comes out. Now, it is usually my customers who tell me there is something new on the Lake out there to read.

This particular book seems to have slipped under the radar of locals. I learned about it from a Manitoban author friend, Donna Sutherland, who knew of my interest as a former archaeologist in ‘Rock Art’ – that is petroglyphs and pictographs made by First Nations people on the bedrock of the nation. Donna mentioned she was reading it on her annual sailboat tour of the Lake of the Woods.

My curiosity was aroused; Louise Erdrich is a pretty big name on the U.S. literary scene. I’ve had my eye on her for a while but never have I read one of her books. I decided this was the one that would serve as my introduction.

Erdrich’s conversational, reflective style drew me to her immediately. I felt as if I was sitting with her in her kitchen, while her toddler pottered with various benign kitchen utensils on the floor beside us. The whole book has that sense of friendly intimacy about it.

We begin as Louise packs her vehicle and sets out from Minneapolis, where she has left her bookshop in the hands of capable staff. (Yes, there’s one more thing I find we have in common: a bookshop!) Throughout her drive to Lake of the Woods, she reflects on her love for and relationship with books; her daughters, her new daughter, whose father lives on Lake of the Woods and is a member of the Big Island First Nation; and her Ojibway culture and its ancient form of ‘books,’ ‘written’ on birchbark scrolls and the rocks along the waterways they travelled. This trip to Lake of the Woods is to meet with her daughter’s father and further explore these paintings and their shared culture with him.

Although I don’t entirely agree with history as she presents it – I feel the archaeological evidence doesn’t support as lengthy an Ojibway presence in this area as she believes – I find other information she shares about current interpretations of the images fascinating and enlightening. Although her figures regarding water level changes are historically arguable, the fact that several villages were permanently drowned out by the dams of the Winnipeg River is true, and reading her Ojibway version of recent history is really worthwhile. It is presented without malice or resentment, without hatred but with natural regret and disappointment, with an eagerness to preserve what remains of the culture and to build from that.

Of less interest, perhaps, to Lake of the Woods readers – but I doubt having read this far anyone could put the book down – is the last part of her journey, to Rainy Lake and the amazing island library-sanctuary of Ernest Oberholtzer.

Books and Islands in Ojibway Country is a beautiful book, a must for any Lake of the Woods library. As you read it, you’ll find that Erdrich’s writing style brings you right to the shore, her words the warm, summer water lapping at your toes. After reading it, you will see the lake with new eyes and feel a deeper affinity toward it . Louise is one of the best writers I’ve read in a long time. She brings you along without even trying, and you will find yourself loving every aspect of the journey.

Eccentric Travellers – John Keay

31 January 2009

I think the fellow who wrote this book must be a bit eccentric himself! Once I adjusted to his writing style, though, I found the accounts quite entertaining.

This is a collection of biographies of seven world travellers: Captain Philip Thicknesse, Thomas Manning, James Holeman, Charles Waterton, Joseph Wolff, William Gifford Palgrave and Dr. G. W. Leitner; men who felt the urge to go where few, if any, of their race had gone before, despite the risks. Several were, at some time in their career, missionaries, others were naturalists, one was an outlaw of sorts, another was totally blind. All of them were, to say the least, quirky.

One of the things I found very interesting about the individuals discussed was how different they were from one another. Their reasons for travelling were diverse. The way each of them considered the environments they travelled through was sometimes surprising to me. It was fascinating to see through these somewhat extreme examples of travellers, just how different we can be from each other, how much our experiences are coloured by our perceptions and expectations, and how differently we are perceived by those we meet, even though we share something so significant in common: the compulsion to travel and explore the world around us.

Steadfast Man – Paul Gallico

30 January 2009

Steadfast ManI was sorting through some books the other day when I found, to my great joy, another Paul Gallico book. This one is a departure from fiction in the form of a biography of St. Patrick. Rather fitting I should find it this month…

In The Steadfast Man, Gallico attempts to reveal the real man that St. Patrick was. This is quite a challenge given that only two documents written by this Primate of Ireland have survived the fifteen centuries since he set them on paper. Both are appended at the end of the book. Although Gallico refers to works about St. Patrick from time to time in his narrative, he indicates that, although there may be a grain of truth to some of the legends surrounding the saint, most of them are sensational beyond the believable. And, yes, that includes the story about him driving the snakes from Ireland.

There is a fair bit of repetition in the text, something I found mildly annoying. But I think I would read it again if I were travelling to Ireland, as it gives a lot of useful advice to the Patrician pilgrim. I enjoyed sampling a bit of Church history, too, for a change. Even if I don’t agree completely with their messages, I still find many of the great individuals in the history of Christianity inspiring for their faith, their tenacity and their courage.