Readers can count this book as one more captivating true tale of Canada's far north, told by its best-read authority. The young Farley Mowat, returning disillusioned from the War in 1947 and thinking to become a biologist, joined with a taxonomist on a collecting "scientific" expedition into the Barren Lands of Northern Manitoba and Saskatchewan. The headstrong 26 year old was improbably paired up with a disciplined naturalist of the old school, who killed and skinned every animal he could shoot, poison or trap. After a while, Farley, having seen enough killing in the war, became disillusioned with this approach to appreciating the wonders of nature, and deserted his post in favor of exploring the largely uninhabited territory in the company of an Indian half-breed, Charles Schweder. His real desire was to contact the "People of the Deer," the Imhalmiut. These people came to be idealized in Farley's mind as a people "uncontaminated with the murderous aberrations of civilized man."
Mowat gives a clear picture of the hardships encountered by the few inhabitants of this harsh landscape. By the time of the expedition, the Imhalmiut had dwindled to only a few scattered bands, having been nearly wiped out in a succession of epidemics. Farley tells of the well-intended but sporadic and largely ineffectual aid given to them by the Canadian government and its minions, and how Schweder had been traumatized by his experience in a partially successful rescue attempt he had made the year previous. His rescue of a six year old replacement for his child bride, dead of starvation, presents the reader (and Mowat) with a thought- provoking moral dilemma. So much for the myth of the noble savage...
For me, though, the message of the book was how uncaring and ruthless "Mother Nature" really is, and how down and dirty a bare-handed struggle it is. He, Thoreau-like, at one point meticulously gives a complete list of the things they chose to carry on their epic trip down an unmapped river system: guns and ammo, flour, sugar, baking soda, canned food, gasoline and oil for their outboard motor, tarps and tents. Even with all these products of Western technology, their trip was hair-raising and nearly disastrous. And the bugs!
For such a rough subject, this turns out to be an engrossing tale and hard to put down. On the other hand, the map requires a magnifying glass to read and there are no illustrations. I really appreciated, though, the last chapter, in which he follows up on the fate of the characters he encountered, giving the reader some "closure" as it is disgustingly called these days.
I found it a little curious, though, that Mowat felt the need to apologize in a postscript for his use of some now politically incorrect words, such as Indian, half-breed, and Eskimo. This is largely a story of the encounters of people with different cultures, of different races, viewed through eyes that are quite a bit more honest than is usually tolerated by the demagogues and girly-men of our sensitive time.