Primarily a writer of fiction, I read a lot of history. One group (area) (field) of books always interests me: Exploration of the earth beginning with the Portuguese and Spanish and finishing in the Twentieth Century. A lot of usual stuff happens: In a sixteenth a guy got parted from a Spanish expedition in Florida, and he walked west to Spanish settlements in Mexico.
Exploration and writing a story are similar. There’s a starting point. The vessel sail in one medium on blue or if it is snow, white. Paper is usually write for the author. Like the author an explorer sort of knows where he’s headed. Neither writer nor explorer know exactly how to get there. A lot of skill is required. Once the writer and explorer believe the destination is reached, they like to call it quits. Success is not always evident. Remember Columbus sailed for India and ended up in North America. Look at the first draft of any story. How close to finishing is the writer? Getting home, completing the story – that’s the rub.
Recently read is L.H. Neatby, The Quest of the Northwest Passage, chock full of facts, names and places with many maps that don’t give all the names of the places mentioned in the text. When reading a book of exploration or discovery, it is good to know where the expedition is: Glendale, Arizona or Glendale, California. Can anyone tell me where the Great Fish River is? Having read the book, I may know. But I may not.
Next, it is not enough to say that Eskimos in the early days (1600 to 1700s) were murderers and thieves without giving a brief background of their society and culture: Life is hard near the Arctic. Did the explorers act this way, or that? I was unaware until late in the book, that a translator who learned to speak the natives’ language in Labrador was understood by Eskimos near the mouth of the Mackenzie River, at least 2000 miles away.
Neatby’s book is otherwise well-presented. It benefits from shortness, 200 pages, no Index. But brevity diminishes the tales. Trapped in ice like Shakleton at the South Pole 60 years later, Captain Collinson secured his ship in the Arctic flow. Morale of the crew was excellent especially after the men built, next to the ship, a billiards table from ice and available materials and played until the ice broke. The reader needs more than 250 words about Captain Collinson.
The text requires an interest in exploration and Canadian history; it is not geared toward the general reader. But the subject matter is compelling with one caveat: Every explorer is cold, frozen, gets frost bitten or ends up frozen to death. This is a welcome book to read during the hot summer months.
The following are exceptionally readable and authoritative books about exploration, the persons involved and the peoples they met:
Carl Sauer: a) Sixteenth Century North America, b) Seventeenth Century North America, c) The Early Spanish Main
JH Parry: a) Discovery of the Sea, b) The Age of Reconnoissance, c) other books
CR Boxer: Histories of the Dutch and Portuguese Empires.
William Goetzmann: a) Exploration and Empire, b) Army Exploration in the American West
Alan Villiers: a) Captain Cook. There are many biographies of Captain Cook. This one is well written. The author is a sailor and has sailed in a ship like the ones Cook piloted, as well as many smaller ships and boats that Cook sailed. There is some technical sailing lingo in it which is not obnoxious. I’m not a sailor and never will be. I will not master the terms or fully understand, always what was happening or why. Although incomprehensible, these sentences and clauses did not get into my general understanding. Despite that, I can only conclude that I like this book because I like to be teased.