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Houseboat Chronicles: Notes from a Life in Shield Country

by Jake MacDonald

The catalogue copy for Houseboat Chronicles, a memoir from Winnipeg freelance writer Jake MacDonald, does not serve the book well. A tagline like “An exploration of life on the Canadian Shield becomes an exploration of Canada itself” is not only deceptive, but may also put off readers – grown tired of those ecstatic and overly earnest accounts of the glories of the Canadian landscape – who might otherwise enjoy MacDonald’s excellent book.

As a child growing up in Winnipeg, MacDonald fell in love with the idea of living in the wilderness, the Canadian Shield in particular. A lengthy and debilitating illness, along with an ill-advised stint in graduate school, kept him from pursuing his dream until he was in his late twenties. Then he ventured north with a canoe and the makings of a small camp, skulking back into town following the ursine invasion and destruction of his wilderness haven. He took up guiding during the season, and lived year-round on a houseboat he built himself, largely from recycled materials.

While there is considerable material on the natural world here, all of it infused with MacDonald’s deep love for and knowledge of the subject, Houseboat Chronicles is ultimately a coming-of-age story, documenting one man’s search for home, family, and his voice as a writer.

And what a voice it is. MacDonald is a wry, witty, and self-effacing writer, with as keen an eye for human character as he has for the natural world. His account of his Winnipeg childhood will resonate keenly with anyone who ever yearned for a pellet gun, or spent long summer afternoons exploring the wilds of country forests or city parks and ravines. Of special interest is his account of his time guiding that reveals the drudgery and boredom so often overlooked in other accounts – days as a no-account wage slave blending into nights in the guide’s dining room and local bars (where they confiscate your knife at the door).

Houseboat Chronicles is a joy to read; hopefully the right readers will discover it.