Friday, August 12, 2016

Whatever It Was, I Liked It

Several friends have recommended John McPhee to me and I’m glad I finally got around to reading something of his, thanks in part to the push of the Mount TBR Reading Challenge. This is creative nonfiction at its best.

As you may know, the phrase "creative nonfiction" is rather dodgy; it's more or less the default term for something no one seems able to define exactly.  A little research turned up a few other phrases for the genre; “literary nonfiction” and “narrative nonfiction” have been used. John McPhee himself has suggested “literature of fact.” I have to agree that none of these seems entirely to capture the essence of the thing.

So I'm forced to say that if you want to know creative nonfiction when you see it, The Survival of the Bark Canoe is an excellent place to begin. This slim little book thoroughly blends the story of how Henri Vaillancourt of Maine came to be the premiere maker of the First Peoples’ bark canoe in modern times with the story of going on a 150-mile canoe trip with Henri and a few companions in two of those canoes.

The first story can be summed up by the words “trial and error.” The second story can also be summed up by those words. Both are quite the adventure.

McPhee intersperses sections of intense detail about the materials and techniques that go into the crafting of the canoes with scenes from history and the sometimes harrowing, sometimes hilarious adventures of the traveling party.

By itself, the “nonfiction” part of this book could resemble the infamously daunting whaling section of Moby Dick; my guess is that only craftspeople who aspired to create canoes as works of art would find it as engrossing as Vaillancourt and (I think) McPhee consider it.    

Fortunately, the “creative” part always resumes just in the nick of time with an episode of fierce headwinds, a punishing portage of canoes and gear, a conflict between the voyagers, or a moment of remote peace and beauty.  

It’s a delightful blend and McPhee is a master at it. Whatever it’s called. 


I showed [Henri] the tent. Rolled up, it was a cylinder eight inches in diameter and four feet long. It weighed eighteen pounds.

"Hang it up," he said. "The idea is to travel light."

How much equipment goes on a canoe trip is a reflection of the criteria that go along as well. Young Indians of the Maine woods, several centuries ago, went off alone for upward of a year -- to prove their skills and their ability to survive. They took a canoe, a spear, some bone tools, a crooked knife [a special kind of wood-carving knife], snowshoes, and a blanket. Today, if someone's criterion is to play at being an Indian, that is how to do it. Henri knew too much about the Indians to pretend to be one. He was a craftsman -- an artist, really -- with a historical purpose, not a boy with a feather in his hair. His professed criteria was to take it easy, to see some wildlife, and travel light with his bark canoes -- nothing more -- and one could not help but lean his way. I had known of people who took collapsible cots, down pillows, chain saws, outboard motors, cases of beer, and battery-powdered portable refrigerators on canoe trips -- even into deep wilderness. You set your own standards.


  1. I love McPhee. He can make the most obscure topic fascinating; he can make the topic you are least interesting in gripping. I have never been disappointed in any of his books or essays.

    1. I'm glad to have more McPhee ahead of me, trusting that I will enjoy reading whatever he's chosen to write about.


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