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Prisoners of the North

by Pierre Berton

Pierre Berton’s 50th book continues his mission to popularize Canadian history. Like many of the other 49 books, Prisoners of the North is rooted in a northern theme and strong storytelling. The short biographies here look at five characters who, like Berton himself, have strong connections to the North. Joseph Boyle made his fortune running gold dredgers in the Klondike; Vilhjalmur Steffansson promoted the North as a friendly place to live; Lady Jane Franklin mythologized her dead Arctic explorer husband; John Hornby died with two companions because of his fixation with the Barren Lands; and Robert Service wrote poems that partly define our perceptions of the Canadian North.

The North is a somewhat tenuous link between such diverse lives – Boyle was a self-promoter whose most interesting exploits occurred in Romania, and Jane Franklin never travelled north of Sitka on the Alaska panhandle. Only Steffansson and the mad Hornby could be said to be truly obsessed with the North. Berton strengthens the links by stressing other similarities such as individualism, ambition, and restless energy, but those characteristics are shared by many extraordinary people.

As he does in all of his books, Berton allows the people to make the history come alive. The five tales are filled with entertaining snippets of information, such as Jane Franklin’s habit of reading 300 books a year but no novels, but add little new perspective on already well-known characters. The strongest tales are about the lesser-known figures, Boyle and Hornby, although Berton’s personal connections to Robert Service add a distinctive perspective to the final narrative.

Prisoners of the North presents five very readable introductions to interesting historical figures. The book is also a good starting point to begin an acquaintance with both the North and Canadian history.