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The Raftsmen

by Dmitry Bondarenko (ill.); Ryan Barnett

It’s hard to believe, amid the hype of our sesquicentennial, that there could be any tales of Canadian pluck and derring-do left to be unearthed and mythologized. And yet few people know (or remember) the true story of three Quebecers who floated across the Atlantic Ocean in the summer of 1956 on a handmade wooden raft roughly the size of a large kitchen.

Ryan Barnett aims to rectify that with his first book, an account of the 89 days spent at sea by Henri Beaudout and his small crew (which included two kittens). Beaudout, who dreamed up the expedition, was a French-born adventurer who served in the French Resistance during the Second World War, and later fought as an infantryman, before coming to Canada in 1952. The Atlantic-by-raft idea was his way of proving that it could be done, and dispelling the heavy depression he suffered as a result of his experiences during the war.

After an aborted first attempt in 1955, Beaudout assembled a new crew and a new raft (the L’Egaré II), and left Halifax Harbour the following May. In August, after enduring storms and near-starvation, they arrived in England – looking like bearded, hipster bartenders – where they briefly became media darlings, appearing on multiple magazine covers.

Barnett, a documentary filmmaker, tells his story through text, graphic-novel-like scenes (drawn by Toronto artist Dmitry Bondarenko), maps, contemporary media images and reports, and photos and film stills shot by the raftsmen themselves. The account of the voyage is gripping, as is the illustrated narrative, though the two don’t always mesh, with one often merely repeating what had just been related in the other. The bookend chapters relate how Barnett came into contact with Beaudout (the only member of the crew still alive), and the efforts to honour their incredible voyage in some way.

An all-graphic-novel treatment might have worked better for younger readers, who will likely skip the sections that detail the elderly Beaudout’s speaking engagements to small crowds, the effects of his postwar depression, and the ignominious end of the L’Egaré II, which eventually got torn apart for scrap. But the core story comes across every bit as odd, remarkable, and worthy of being remembered as Barnett intended.