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Book review: <i>Voyageur</i> by Robert Twigger

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the cover of the book

If this was an entry in a log book, it would be hanging off the wall of the bushwalking hut you find just before the storm hits, and the whole event would seem more like an adventure and less of a trial.

Cover

A curious diagrammatic illustration, similar to those found on airline safety cards, featuring a blank-faced male figure above a canoe with various intriguing objects - booze, weed, a gun, a dog, a leak. Text is uninspiring, and you could say that the whole things's a bit too sterile to suit the material within. On the other hand, once again, a white background and clarity of purpose will draw the eye. Also, I suspect perhaps the publishers were aiming for an audience (e.g. me) unlikely to home in on a photograph of some beardy in a canoe.

Plot

Twigger, a Pom, crosses half the globe, with no real justifictaion, in order to recreate the journey of one Alexander MacKenzie, a Scot who also crossed half the world in 1972. He did this in order to try and navigate Canada's rivers from the Atlantic ocean to the Pacific. MacKenzie used: A- Birchbark canoes, and B- Native Americans. The canoes kept them moving, and the Indians prevented perforation with arrows when they stopped. MacKenzie made it in the end, although it took him months, of course, dozens of native guides, the expertise of French Canadian fur trappers (called Voyageurs) and several dramatic boat rebuilds. There was also a fair bit of portage, which, to any other non-nautical types in the audience, means get out of the boat, cos we gon' carry it. MacKenzie's journey proved that North America could be crossed with no greater distance than thirteen kilometres between rivers, but that's still a freaking long way to carry a loaded thirty-foo boat.

Twigger helps build an authentic birch-bark canoe, then makes his journey in three different segments over three years, using a different crew each year. Between two and four men large, the crews need to be prepared for months of paddling, privation, and fuck-all personal space in the name of...making a journey that somebody else made two hundred years ago, using the same technology. As you'd imagine, this appeals mainly to odd, or at least stoned, people.

The Good

I do like this Twigger fellow. For an award-winning poet, he's disarmingly straightforward, honest and utterly likeable, or at least his prose is, which might as well be the same thing. He's also, in the grand tradition of Hemingway and Orwell, not content to consider himself a writer until he's lived some life to write about, preferably involving graft, discomfort and danger.

The story opens with the minimum of fuss. Twigger doesn't bore us with his home life or try to paint a picture of domestic felicity for us to miss alongside him later. Details only begin when he builds his canoe, or rather helps build it alongside an old, hippie-ish birchbark canoe expert who winds up accompanying Twigger on the first year's trip. And it is a fascinating process, I concede, despite my customary disinterest in boats as a topic. Layers of bark are ironed and shaped, held in place with wood, tied together with strips of root and sealed with resin and grease. There is nothing on a birchbark canoe which cannot be replaced in the country where they were once common, and yet they are strong, flexible, and very light. On the trip Twigger meets many Native Americans, and none of them have seen a real birchbark canoe before – even the oldest only recall canvas versions, and of course now most use motorboats like everybody else.

Yet, still, there are places where motorboats cannot go, and inland Northern America is a big, wild place. Bears are common, rangers are rare, and in the sort of country Twigger travels (rivers, inlets, muddy marshes and wild woodlands) it is pitifully easy to get lost or drown, long before anyone would find you. Twigger evokes both the wilderness and the strange drives that push men into it with humility, personality, and an impressive eye for relevant detail, yet never lets these things overwhelm the story of the journey or the people met along it.

People doing interesting things tend to meet other interesting people, even bang in the middle of SFA, and Twigger and his band of unwashed freaks are no exception. Possibly the most \ interesting recurring characters are the Native American Indians. Twigger (and thus his reader) approaches them as an honest Westerner - he finds them intriguing, both for their history and their current cultural status, and he tries to be as friendly and open as possible. Yet he cannot totally shed the fears and prejudices inherent in the relationship between white men and indigenous cultures, of course, nor a hint of romantic foolishness from the same direction. Regardless, the Indian ceremony to which the boys are invited (their canoe is a quietly respected introductory ticket whenever they meet Native Americans) is one of the most interesting parts of the book.

There are three colour photographic inserts in the book. For two years of the trip, Twigger has a talented photographer in his crew, and there are some gorgeous shots of the vastness of the rivers - one can sometimes get a slightly claustrophobic feel from the very human scale of Twigger's prose and the minutiae of outdoor existence, but these images serve to whoosh open the mind's eye and remind the reader exactly why these niggles can, in a moment, suddenly seem petty.

The bad

Like Twigger's awesome book Angry White Pyjamas, this is difficult to criticise because it is what it is, and claims to be nothing more. If the plot synopsis doesn't interest you then don't bother, because you probably won't be converted. If, on the other hand, it interests you mildly, then Twigger could well win you over. It's not that he's such a lyrical writer that he can turn a canoe trip into poetry; it's almost the opposite, in fact. His prose is as fluidly straightforward as the rivers themselves, and this, combined with Twigger's gift of near-perfect focus, makes it very difficult to stop reading. Thus the poetry is not in the prose, but in the journey, as it is in life.

What I learned

How to make a canoe travel upstream - usually, get out and pull it along, one squelching step at a time.

In short

Title: Voyageur
Author: Robert Twigger
Publisher: Orion
ISBN: 0753821486
Year published: 2010
Pages: 420
Genre(s): Non-Fiction, Travel
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