Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Death on the Barrens: A True Story of Courage and Tragedy in the Canadian Arctic, by George James Grinnell

First, my thanks to Librarything and to Goodreads both for sending me this book through their respective Early Reviewers programs. 

This is a tough one to review because my expectations were different than the reality of this book.

George Grinnell, the author, lays out the story of how in 1955 he and four other guys, all under the leadership of one Arthur Moffatt, spent about three months on a canoe trek from Stony Rapids in Saskatchewan to Baker Lake in Nunavit to get away from the world for a while.  Moffatt was the kind of guy who would much rather be communing with nature and indigenous peoples than living the hustle in the real world, and he had planned this trip intending to add a kind of spiritual reinforcement to daily life. He brought no radio, no modern conveniences, nothing really except supplies to live on and a philosophy about nature and living in the world. Grinnell, from a well-placed and rather famous family, was a rebel in his youth, always blasting away at capitalism and the system. This trip was right up his alley. From the time Moffatt, Grinnell and the others grabbed their paddles and started on their long journey, there were the occasional bouts of blizzards, rough waters, near-starvation, changing allegiances among the men  and other tribulations in an environment that would either make or break a person. Grinnell hung on mentally by keeping Moffatt's spiritual and philosophical teachings in his head while, according to him, the others were more worried about their physical needs.  Sadly, Moffatt never made it back alive, and as the book opens, the rest of the group are being questioned by the Mounties about Art's death. 

What I discovered about this book is that the real point of this book is not the "death on the barrens" of Arthur Moffatt, but rather about George Grinnell himself. He spends a huge chunk of time on his prominent family background, his personal life up to that point, and how after a life of  rebelliousness he came to find a spiritual inner wellness and meaning to life while on that canoe journey that ultimately took Moffatt's life. Although the story of the expedition itself is well told up to the point of Moffatt's death, this account is widely interspersed with philosophical musings from Zen koans, Inuit lore, literature, poetry and Moffatt's personal philosophy that helped George find his peace, only to lose it later after he had to make his way in the real world once more.

To be very honest, I thought from the title that the author was presenting a book about an expedition gone very, very wrong, and the chapter on the Mounties questioning the rest of the group about Moffatt's death made me even more intrigued to see what the heck had happened out there in the Canadian wilds in 1955. What I discovered was that both the title and the teaser opener were a bit misleading.

Books about spiritual awareness and how people find it, lose it and find it again  really aren't my cup of tea, but for many people out there I'm sure that this story might be quite motivational and inspiring.

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