SOCIAL SCIENCES

Disappointment River: Finding and Losing the Northwest Passage

Doubleday. Mar. 2018. 352p. notes. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780385541626. $27.95; ebk. ISBN 9780385541633. HIST
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When Scottish explorer Alexander Mackenzie set out to survey the length of a river through northwestern Canada in 1789, he was searching for the fabled Northwest Passage. The long voyage was fraught with challenges and ultimately proved that the river ended in the icebound Arctic Ocean, was unnavigable for commercial purposes, and therefore, a disappointment. More than 200 years later, author Castner follows Mackenzie's 1,100-mile journey down the Deh Cho, the indigenous name for the Mackenzie River. In alternating chapters, Castner relates Mackenzie's preparation and voyage with his own. While Castner does not offer any new biographical sources about Mackenzie, he demonstrates a deft use of primary materials along with an eye for detail and storytelling to paint vivid pictures of the people he meets, his fellow paddlers (there were four), and the river. Castner identified seven plagues of the Deh Cho that Mackenzie likely experienced: heat, cold, wind, tempest, bugs, timelessness, and emptiness.
VERDICT The narrative shines when Castner describes his time on the Deh Cho, creating a more sympathetic understanding of the difficulties of Mackenzie's voyage. For readers who enjoy modern adventures placed within historical context.
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