CM . . .
. Volume IX Number 19 . . . . May 23, 2003
Originally published by Jackpine House Ltd. in 1980, this revised edition of Wiebe's fictionalized account of the 1931 RCMP manhunt for the "mad trapper of Rat River," Albert Johnson, has been released by Red Deer Press. As part of the “Northern Lights Young Novels” series, the tale traces the seven week chase and utilizes the licence of fiction to speculate about the nature of hunter and hunted as the "Mounties get their man." The novel joins the body of literature and media focused on the bizarre events in the High Arctic during the winter of 1931-32.
Although Johnson's notoriety has been perpetuated in poetry with Robert Kroetsch's "Poem of Albert Johnson," in song with Wilf Carter's "The Capture of Albert Johnson," in film with Death Hunt starring Charles Bronson and Lee Marvin, in drama with Brian Lewis' Arctic Circle War, in true crime with Dick North's Trackdown: The Search for the Mad Trapper, in radio programs with CBC Northern Service Radio "Between Ourselves: The Mad Trapper" none successfully answers the question posed by Wiebe in this story: "Who was Albert Johnson? "
In autumn of 1931, Albert Johnson, described as "of medium height and barrel chested," with "weathered scars, stubbled whiskers," arrives in Fort McPherson on Peel River, "a hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle," aboard a crude raft, produces a wad of cash to buy supplies, and sets off to build a cabin on Rat River, some forty five miles north. From the outset, Johnson is anti social, speaking only grudgingly and reacting with barely restrained rage at questions, especially from Constable King. In December, when Dene trappers report Johnson has interfered with their trap lines, Corporal "Spike" Millen and his partner, King, head to the Rat River cabin by dogsled to discuss the issue. Johnson refuses to come out of his cabin or to speak, forcing Millen to secure a warrant and return, only to have Johnson fire through the door and wound King. This inexplicable act of violence sets in motion a manhunt that begins January 4, 1932 from Aklavik, NWT and ends February 17th across the Richardson Mountains at Eagle River, Yukon, leaving Johnson dead, two trackers wounded, and two RCMP officers dead.
Wiebe divides the novel into segments setting the scene in "Stranger," establishing the conflict in "The Sprung Trap," detailing the chase in "The First Manhunt: Rivers and Wilderness" and "The Second Manhunt: Mountains and May," and describing the termination in "The Meeting." Appropriately, the major portion of the novel deals with the manhunt, itself, detailing the enormous challenges posed by horrible weather conditions and the Arctic terrain. Apparently Wiebe adapted the novel from his film script for a project that fell through, which explains the pace of the chase action plot structure. Using the freedom granted the novelist, Wiebe creates his own version of the Johnson saga, rearranging historical facts to assign the major roles to the enigmatic, mute Johnson as the hunted, and "easy going,"affable Millen as the hunter: both doomed.
Wiebe's protagonists often exhibit extreme individualism leading to anti social behaviour and occasionally, as in the case of Johnson, criminal behavior. In an attempt to humanize this anti hero protagonist, Wiebe hints at past tragedies that have driven Johnson to this northern isolation and his defiant attitudes. Johnson carries three photographs that hint at betrayal as he hums, "Call no man your friend. If you trust anybody you'll be sorry . . . in the end," and woman trouble as he hums, "Never smile at a woman." Johnson's physical strength, his survival skills, his competencies as an outdoorsman, his cunning in evading his trackers, and his dogged determination are all commendable characteristics; nevertheless, the unexplained violence he unleashes, his "implacable, absolute defiance," demonstrate his theory that "people just get you in trouble" and his insistence, "I never bother nobody if they don't bother me."
In contrast, Millen believes in "community order" and insists a law enforcement officer needs "time to talk to people, learn things, talk them out of hurting themselves, and you." Only after Johnson kills another member does Millen exhibit a "blank inwardness" as "implacable as the storm roaring outside" and become obsessed with capturing Johnson. When they finally face each other, "bodies forced for forty nine days through bush and ravine and river and mountain by those indomitable minds" words cannot stop what "had to happen." Millen lies shot through the heart and Johnson lies dead, his face a "frozen snarl and teeth . . . in one final wordlessly silent scream."
A Northern Canadian manhunt becomes a hot media item with radio and newspapers sensationalizing events, dubbing Johnson the "Mad Trapper" and providing the public, all too eager to escape their daily lives during the "dirty 30's," with blow by blow accounts of RCMP activities. Technology firsts like those contributed by the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals who provided two way radio contact between the tracking teams and headquarters, and by World War I ace and bush pilot, Wop May, who piloted a Ballanca airplane to track the criminal and to transport supplies to the teams struggling with sub zero temperatures and blizzards herald a "new" era.
Fourteen black and white photographs are scattered throughout the text, four more than the original release which collected all pictures at the center of the volume. Another noticeable revision features removing "Karl Gardlund, a Swedish trapper" and replacing him with "Lazarus Sittichinli, a Dene trapper." Young readers accustomed to television and action films should feel comfortable with the movie style chase through the wilderness. Alternating scenes of Johnson and his antagonists elevates the suspense but fails to promote effective character development. The narrative is strongest when Wiebe crafts highly descriptive and skillfully executed images of the Arctic landscape and its inhabitants. Perhaps the novel might serve to motivate young readers to conduct some research into the history of the Canadian north, an area rich in tales of adventure and true heroism, albeit lacking the sensationalism of "the mad trapper of Rat River."
Darleen Golke is a librarian in Winnipeg, MB.
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