CM . . .
. Volume XIII Number 11 . . . .January 19, 2007
David Thompson: A Trail by Stars. (The Quest Library, 29).
Montreal, PQ: XYZ Publishing, 2006.
170 pp., pbk., $17.95.
Thompson, David, 1770-1857.
Fur Traders-Northwest, Canadian-Biography.
Grades 8 and up / Ages 13 and up.
Review by Val Ken Lem.
David Thompson was now twenty-seven years old, and he was angry. His second term of service with the [Hudson's Bay] company was up, and until this point he had done everything they had asked of him. His years of hard travel had made him as lean and tough as any veteran fur trader. He was a crack shot and a fine hunter. He could speak the language of the Chipewyan, Cree, and Piegan and they respected him. He could not only read and write at a time when most men could do neither, but he had also mastered the mathematics and astronomy needed to map the wilderness. He felt that for the first time in his life he was free to choose his future, and he knew he had become a valuable commodity.
David Thompson is best known as an explorer, fur trader, and cartographer. Between 1784 when he arrived at Churchill Factory as a 14-year-old apprentice to the Hudson's Bay Company, and 1812 when he retired from the fur trade to focus on mapmaker for the North West Company, he had travelled 80,000 kilometres by canoe, on foot, or on horseback. During his travels, he kept a journal wherein he noted details about the indigenous peoples that he encountered including their strategic and trading alliances. He constantly recorded new astronomical measurements that would help him to map vast reaches of the North American west, from Hudson Bay and Lake Superior to the Pacific Ocean. The maps that he produced remained the most accurate for decades.
Shardlow's biography focuses on the first half of Thompson's life, from his birth to poor Welsh parents in London in 1770, his schooling at the Grey Coat Charity School for orphaned boys following the death of his father, his apprenticeship in the fur trade and acquisition of surveying skills while in the employ of the Hudson's Bay Company from 1784-1797, and his subsequent years as a surveyor and fur trader with the North West Company from 1797-1812. The focus on Thompson's travels is in keeping with Thompson's own desire to be remembered as an explorer, as recorded in a manuscript prepared in his later years. Shardlow acknowledges heavy reliance upon the 1971 edition of Thompson's Travels in Western North America, 1784-1812, edited by Victor G. Hopwood, and Thompson's unpublished Journals. When these sources are used to create scenes and dialogue, the text has a fairly authentic feel. Shardlow's text is less convincing when he veers off into the minds of characters such as the captain of the vessel that brought Thompson to Hudson Bay, or in the prologue wherein he recounts an impoverished, aged Thompson selling his precious surveying instruments to a Montreal merchant in exchange for food.
More than a dozen archival images, an index, bibliography, chronology, and a map are features commonly found in the "Quest Library" series. The full-page map of David Thompson's Travels does not have a scale, does not identify by name all of the fur trading forts that are indicated, and uses archaic (perhaps Thompson's own?) spelling for some of the sites rather than the standardized forms employed by the author (i.e. Saleesh House instead of Salish House). The fine chronology compiled by Clarence Karr expands upon Thompson's post fur trade years when he served as a surveyor for the International Boundary Commission and elsewhere. It records personal details such as the births of Thompson's and his Métis wife Charlotte Small's thirteen children, and also highlights recognition that Thompson received following his death in 1857, such as the first publication of his Narrative in 1916, the unveiling of a memorial monument at his previously unmarked grave in 1927, and eventually concludes with an entry for 2006 noting the David Thompson North American Bicentennial Partnership's plans to hold commemorative events between 2007 and 2011. The parallel chronology of Canada and the World is appropriately strong on developments in the Canadian west and also ends in 2006 with an entry on the transfer of ownership of the Hudson's Bay Company to American businessman Jerry Zucker.
Val Ken Lem is a catalogue librarian and collection liaison for English, history and Caribbean studies at Ryerson University in Toronto, ON.
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