CM . . .
. Volume XVI Number 2. . . .September 11, 2009
Vilhjalmur Stefansson: Arctic Adventurer.
Toronto, ON: Dundurn, 2009.
216 pp., pbk., $19.99.
Stefansson, Vilhjalmur, 1879-1962.
Arctic regions-Discovery and exploration-Canadian.
Grades 9 and up / Ages 14 and up.
Review by Alexander Gregor.
Vilhjalmur Stefansson travelled the North almost continuously between 1906 and 1918 and in various written accounts fashioned a most appealing vision of what was terra incognita to most of his readers. His work charmed and intrigued many readers, even those like Stephen Leacock, who preferred to experience the Arctic with a hot toddy in hand beside his home fireplace. Stefansson's life was an amazing personal journey from poverty to fame and high repute. His ideas were multifarious, and often controversial, but they retain the power to challenge us. His reputation as an explorer is secure, and his anthropological work, often ignored or demeaned in the past, is being re-evaluated. But perhaps the man's greatest achievement, at least for Canadians, was his expression of the conviction that mutual respect between north and south is the proper condition for building an even more successful nation.... Given Canada's history, and the experience of its Native peoples up until the present, it would be naive to suggest that such a condition of harmony has been achieved. But at least the ideal has been set forth, and if the future brings something better, then Stefansson will be remembered, not merely as "the prophet of the North," but as the prophet of the whole North, strong and free." (pp. 120-121)
There are few aspects of Canadian public policy and popular attitude that have been as inconsistent and ambivalent as the country's attitudes toward its North. While fostering the romantic image of being a "northern nation," the country, in fact, grew as a narrow ribbon along its southern border, with eyes—political, cultural and economic—fixed on the other three quadrants of the compass. In the public and popular mind, maps stretch east and west; polar projections offer only the occasional disconcerting anomaly. It is not surprising, therefore, that the country's reaction to its northern explorers and proponents should be similarly ambivalent; and it is entirely appropriate that the most famous of this band should be, himself, a character of inconsistency and myth—and only tenuously Canadian.
Indeed, Vilhjalmaur Stefansson, scion of an Icelandic community on the western shore of Lake Winnipeg, spent most of his growing years and professional life in the United States. The relatively brief portion of his life spent in Canada was characterized by controversies with the country's scientific and bureaucratic sectors—controversies due partly to the fact that the country was not yet ready for the initiatives Stefansson was urging, but just as much to objections as to how he went about his professional work, and the decidedly idiosyncratic views and issues he promulgated. His decidedly eccentric personality similarly coloured his relationships with the scientific and professional establishment in the United States, and his controversial persona in the public mind.
Partly because Stefansson's ideas—on matters such as northern development—were out of phase with the times (or just impractical), and partly because many of his enthusiasms were inextricably bound up in the personal and professional controversies that dogged him, his specific permanent contributions were somewhat limited—except, of course, for the very important exploration and mapping work he carried out in the course of his three major Arctic expeditions during the first two decades of the last century. But perhaps his greatest achievement—and one that ironically was probably enhanced significantly by those very controversies—was to bring the north on to centre stage in the public imagination. The powerful story that he implanted in that imagination was important in fostering a subsequent readiness to see the north on its own terms, and to respect it as a land and culture—and not just as a frontier to be exploited.
This is the controversial protagonist with which the historian Tom Henighan deals in his excellent contribution to the Canadian biography series published by Dundurn Press. Henighan's goal is not to add to the original scholarship on Stefansson, but to present a composite picture of the man and the issues surrounding him. In doing so, he integrates the major recent scholarly studies, as well as Stefansson's own quite voluminous writings. His study is positioned nicely in the broader literature of exploration and the "idea of the north," and Henighan does a first rate job of placing an otherwise enigmatic character into a useful interpretive framework. He shows, for example, how Stefansson might be considered the last of an earlier breed of explorer—an interpretation which helps explain some of the controversies surrounding his methods and attitudes. Another interesting chapter explores the historical ideas of the North, which again places Stefansson and explains—in part at least—some of the fundamental differences in perspective and perception between him and his various critics. In doing so, the analysis provides a valuable backdrop for our own contemporary understanding of the conflicting viewpoints surrounding the future of the North.
As a device in dealing with an enigmatic character, Henighan employs what he labels "creative non-fiction"—inventing, for example, a short drama that explicates something of Stefansson's complex relationship with a number of the people who figured in his personal life an professional career. Judicious use of a device like this does have the capacity to enhance understanding at a human level, and works effectively in Stefansson's case.
Supplementary to the story itself is an excellent annotated bibliography, as well as an engaging time-chart which traces the events of Stefansson's life in tandem with the parallel events in Canada and the world at large—again, a useful device for a topic area that can too easily be considered in isolation from the larger context beyond. The book, itself, is very well designed for easy reading, and the text accompanied by a number of period photographs.
Alexander Gregor is a retired professor of educational history and author of Vilhjalmur Stefansson and the Arctic (Book Society of Canada, 1979).
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