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Epic Wanderer: David Thompson and the Mapping of the Canadian West

by D’Arcy Jenish

Popular biographers often work hard to find a new and exciting perspective on their subject, an activity that sometimes moves the focus of the book from the subject to the author. Fortunately, in Epic Wanderer, D’Arcy Jenish remains admirably invisible and allows the remarkable life of his subject to speak for itself.

David Thompson’s achievements were epic, but he was no wanderer. Unlike his contemporaries, Samuel Hearne and Alexander Mackenzie, Thompson did not merely undertake one or two remarkable journeys in the midst of an otherwise ordinary life, but devoted his entire life to surveying. His great achievement was creating an accurate, detailed map of western Canada 50 years before anyone else realized they would need it.

While mapping his 50,000 square miles of wilderness, Thompson kept a daily journal, which Jenish uses to the fullest. Epic Wanderer is replete with fascinating detail, from how to kill a grouse with your teeth to a hangover remedy that involves drinking your wife’s blood. The work is coherently presented and enlivened with numerous appropriate quotes.

More investigation into Thompson’s extraordinary relationship with the First Nations peoples he encountered would have been welcome, and the reproduced journal pages become slightly repetitive. However, the maps, vital elements in any work on Thompson, are well presented.

David Thompson was undoubtedly an extraordinary man and a significant figure in the history of Canada. Epic Wanderer goes some way to restoring Joseph Burr Tyrrell’s assessment of him as “the greatest land geographer the world has produced.”