Disappointment River: Finding and Losing the Northwest Passage

Brian Castner. Doubleday, $27.95 (352p) ISBN 978-0-385-54162-6
Memoirist and Iraq vet Castner (All the Ways We Kill and Die) blends stories of his own travels in Canada’s far north with an exhilarating historical narrative set in the area in the late 18th century. In 2016, Castner set out to paddle the 1,124 miles of the Mackenzie River in Canada’s Northwest Territories, retracing the route taken by Alexander Mackenzie in 1789. A prominent fur trader, Mackenzie hoped to discover the fabled Northwest Passage and thereby secure the rich markets of East Asia. Guided by an incomplete map, Mackenzie pushed his group of voyageurs and native Chipewyans through intense privation into Arctic latitudes previously unknown to Europeans. Over two centuries later, Castner finds indigenous cultures negotiating the dangers, and opportunities, of modernity and climate change. Yet despite the buildup along the banks, the vast river Mackenzie named Disappointment retains both its dangers and majesty. Of the alternating accounts, the fur trader’s is more gripping, as Castner evokes vivid personalities and drama from the archives (at one point, to stave off loneliness, Mackenzie “trudged the forty miles through the snow for a glass of wine and dinner with Roderic,” his cousin and fellow adventurer). The author’s own reasons for embracing such intense physical misery remain unclear, and the themes of global warming and Native American resilience are left underdeveloped. Nevertheless, Castner is an engaged narrator and writes from a visceral connection to the natural world, describing insect swarms and whitewater spills. Historians and armchair travelers alike will be equally pleased with this volume. (Mar.)
Reviewed on: 01/29/2018
Release date: 03/13/2018
Hardcover - 352 pages - 978-0-7710-2395-8
Paperback - 535 pages - 978-0-525-59537-3
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