Friday, November 25, 2016

Book Review - Canoes: A Natural History in North America

I was fortunate to receive a review copy of a highly anticipated book set for release in November 2016.  Canoes: A Natural History in North America by Mark Neuzil and Norman Sims is a richly illustrated hardcover containing a whopping 416 pages of content to satisfy the interest of canoe lovers everywhere.

A Natural History in North America

Mark Neuzil and Norman Sims
Foreword by John McPhee
$39.95 cloth/jacket ISBN 978-0-8166-8117-4
416 pages, 95 b&w plates, 228 color plates, 10 x 8, November 2016

The style of the book takes one on a formal history lesson of the canoe in the Americas. Beginning with the story of various dugout forms, the book continues with the evolution of the birchbark and the subsequent transition to all wood canoes of the late 1800s. The natural progression to wood canvas canoes sets the stage for the era of aluminum craft and today's modern marvels engineered with industrial chemical synthetics. At each stage, one begins to realize that the basic form of the canoe has remained timeless but generational "improvements" in materials have been the defining feature of the craft.

Hardcore canoeists often view the world in paddling metaphors. Reading through each chapter felt like an adventurous backcountry journey, sometime through familiar territory, but with pleasant surprises along the way. The over 300 illustrative plates (some never before published) offered plenty of visual diversions, not unlike the excitement of spotting elusive wildlife on a trip. Historical maps, classic artworks and rare photographs had this reader frequently pausing  to take in the visual feast. Interspersed amongst the general text are short 2-3 page essays on various satellite topics such as "Canoe Sails", "Canoe Patents", "Canoes in Wartime" . These breaks felt like literary portages, a chance to get off the main route a bit and stretch your legs on the trail.

Published by the University of Minnesota Press, the book does have the obvious feel of being heavily American influenced to this Canadian observer. Of course, we Canadians have often arrogantly hijacked the canoe as our own national symbol but the book does the craft justice in representing the canoe as having a truly North American story.

Of particular interest to this reader was the writeup on the world's oldest known bark canoe, now at the Canadian Canoe Museum. Previous posts on the topic have been featured on the site here and here. The most detailed description of this vessel was written by  legendary bark canoe builder, Henri Vaillancourt and appeared in Wooden Boat Magazine (Sept/Oct 2011 - Issue 222 - Page 72). A bit of a shame that more detailed photographs of this historic craft were not included in the brief excerpt of the book.  

As a bit of consolation however, a beautiful colour photo of another aged birchbark canoe (rarely available for public view) has been reproduced in its full glory. The famed "1826 Penobscot Canoe" in the collection of The Peabody Essex Museum, Massachusetts was the subject of a restoration and construction analysis in 1947. The resulting article published in  The American Neptune (Vol VIII, No. 4, 1948) has been graciously reprinted with permission online by the WCHA. It was a real treat to see this elegant craft in full colour after being exposed to only grainy black and white photos from the past. 

When I first read the table of contents on the book's press release page, I was ecstatic that Chapter 7: Canoes and the Human-Powered Movement contained a subtitle for "Paddles". Working under the assumption that a detailed discussion of paddle forms with perhaps photos of historically significant paddles would be on display, the teasingly short, 2 page write-up contained few photos or satisfactory information on this rich topic. Granted, the focus of the book is obviously the watercraft, but just as canoes have evolved over the centuries, the paddles that have propelled them have as well. To this obviously biased paddlemaker, it was akin to seeing a bunch of meticulously restored vintage cars without their engines on display.  

These very minor short-comings aside, this new publication adds fresh perspectives and novel content to the topic. Given that paddling season is now over for most of us in North America, the timely release of the book will allow us to go on a very satisfying literary expedition over the winter. No matter what era of the canoe story you might have a special spot for, this book will certainly take a cherished place in your library collection.

About the authors:
• Mark Neuzil is professor of communication and journalism at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. He is the author, coauthor, or editor of seven books and a frequent writer and speaker on environmental themes. A former wilderness guide and summer park ranger, Neuzil is an avid outdoorsman who began canoeing in the 1960s with his family. He is a past board member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Friends of the Mississippi River.

 • Norman Sims is a retired honors professor from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a past president of the International Association for Literary Journalism Studies. This is his sixth book. A longtime whitewater canoeist and an active member of both the Appalachian Mountain Club and the Wooden Canoe Heritage Association, Sims has a small collection of antique Morris wood-and-canvas canoes. 

• John McPhee is the author of more than thirty books, including Encounters with the Archdruid (1971), The Survival of the Bark Canoe (1975), and Coming into the Country (1977). Since 1963, his articles and all of his books have appeared in The New Yorker magazine. He received the Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1977, and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Annals of the Former World in 1999. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.


David said...

Sounds like a great book, Maybe I should get one!!

Chris Fisher said...

I just got this in the mail yesterday evening!

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