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Boundless: Tracing Land and Dream in a New Northwest Passage

by Kathleen Winter

Kathleen Winter is the author of the international best-selling novel Annabel, which was a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, a Governor General’s Literary Award, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, the Orange Prize for Fiction, and CBC’s Canada Reads. With Boundless, this widely admired fiction writer makes a successful foray into the realm of non-fiction.

In the opening chapter, a friend convinces Winter she ought to make herself ready for any experiences that come her way. This wise friend’s advice: always have a bag packed. Fortuitously, as soon as Winter follows through on this advice, she receives a last-minute invitation to be the resident writer aboard a Russian icebreaker travelling through the Northwest Passage. “My bags,” she responds, “are already packed.”

Boundless chronicles Winter’s journey, but is completely unlike other expedition memoirs. In fact, the book is a rare breed of travelogue, one which avoids the genre’s common pitfalls of self-aggrandizement and narcissism. Winter brings the touch of a talented novelist to the characterization of her fellow passengers, the descriptions of the land through which she travels, and the cultures with which she comes into contact.

Boundless is digressive and philosophical. One might even say that the main setting of the book is Kathleen Winter’s mind. An on-board consideration of freedom leads to a multiple-page reflection on her father’s garden. A song by the boat’s musician flows into memories of the death of Winter’s first husband. A description of muskoxen transitions into Winter’s memory of sitting on a hill with her baby and the instinctual fear that an eagle might fly off with the infant.

Winter is a confident and engaging stylist, and her treatment of the material is kind and empathetic. She finds the bizarrely beautiful in each person and in the land. Her story is filled with surprising and delightful humour, even while it deals with very significant problems, such as travellers forcing Western notions onto remote Northern landscapes or tourism effecting negative change on Northern cultures.

Ultimately, the journey that Kathleen Winter takes on a last-minute whim is transformative. Her precise and vivid prose allows the reader to share in that transformation. For the many readers who admired Annabel and want to get to know its author better, Boundless is a tremendous gift.