To Pierre Berton (first letter)

Dear Mr. Berton.
I finally got around to reading one of your fifty books. It was the last one you ever wrote, Prisoners of the North, and now I regret not bothering sooner.
The truth be told Mr. Berton, you were about as appealing to me growing up as getting maple syrup for a birthday present (sweet and wholesome, not really my own, creepily nationalistic, kind of boring). I vaguely remember watching a documentary you narrated about the Gold Rush town you grew up in. I was at my grandparents’ place (on my Dad’s side) and they didn’t have cable. We were given damp no-name potato chips and flat ginger ale. I didn’t realize how privileged I really was.
I used to wonder where you were coming from. Why did you wear those bow-ties? It has been suggested in some quarters that Canadian History is more boring than Hell. Maybe you were lying all those years to spruce things up a bit. This was a suspicion of mine, but I know better now. You were a Prisoner of the North yourself (as you rightly point out in that last book). No one chooses to be born. No one chooses to be a part of all this death and violence and forgetting — not in the beginning — not perhaps before the beginning begins.
The tundra. The delusion of a clean slate. The imagined call of Liberty. The refusal of friends and family. The rejection of time and history. The promise of leaving the human race. The denial of first peoples. The lure of reinvention. The perpetuation of unwitting indentured servitude. The laughing blue-blood ghosts of Old Europe amongst the caribou.
It’s as if we’re always shaking off these red-neck legacies — the dirty work of Empire and the misguided shame of poverty. I’ve wanted to believe in the New World and the eventual possibility of a True Republic — get excited about it despite myself — but I am a prisoner too. Modern life serves very few and I’m pretty sure I’m not one of them. Maybe I should try calming down a bit and applying for work at the CBC.
Your chapter on John Hornby gets to the heart of the matter.
“You can fully realize how miserable I feel here, ” [Hornby] wrote from England to a former partner between forays in the tundra. “This senseless life is detestable. How can people feel justified in leading an aimless existence?”
No one would ever want to starve to death in The Barrens like he did (bringing innocents down with them). That’s not how you get out of this cold fortress. And so here we are Mr. Berton. Here we remain, with this doomed company you’ve collected. It’s somehow a bit comforting. It’s almost tolerable. It’s as if we know better.
jeremy