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The Great Adventure: How the Mounties Conquered the West

by David Cruise and Alison Griffiths

In 1874, the first 300 members of the North West Mounted Police set out on a 900-mile trek to suppress the illegal whiskey trade at the appropriately named Fort Whoop-Up in what is now southern Alberta. When they arrived, many of their horses and oxen were dead or dying and the men themselves were exhausted, hungry, and dressed in rags.

For the raw volunteers involved it was certainly a great adventure, and David Cruise and Alison Griffiths have done a splendid job of capturing the flavour of the experience through their extensive quotations from 16 contemporary diaries and first-hand accounts. We see all sides of the story, from the commander’s official point of view to the wonder of a 15-year-old sub-constable who believes he is living a Fenimore Cooper novel. There are even sketches by the official artist. It is a well-painted picture, but one that sometimes shows too much and at others too little.

Almost half The Great Adventure deals with background, much of which occurs in the United States. We are given a wealth of anecdotes about the whiskey trade, wolf hunting, and the early life of Jerry Potts. Much of this is interesting but, for example, Jerry Potts appears only briefly at the end of the adventure and achieved fame after it was all over.

On the other hand, once the trek begins we feel almost as isolated as the mounties themselves, not knowing anything about what is happening back east where stories of the expedition’s collapse and massacre were being circulated.

The style of the book is light, in keeping with the nature of the diary quotes. Occasionally, it is overblown, reminding one of the dime novels of the time, but overall, the tale moves along and holds the reader’s interest. A stronger focus would have been nice, but The Great Adventure is, nonetheless, a fascinating and readable glimpse of an often overlooked piece of Canadian history and the lives of those who participated in it.