Genre: Canadian History
Barris chronicles the history of the vessels that traversed the waters of the western Canadian plains by bringing to life the voices of those on board and on shore whose lives revolved around those prairie steamboats.
David Poulsen’s review of Fire Canoe:
Fire Canoe: Prairie Steamboat Days
Review by David A. Poulsen
Fire Canoe—Another Barris Literary Treasure
Ted Barris’s recently released Fire Canoe (Dundurn, Toronto) confirms once again the writer’s position as one of Canada’s pre-eminent purveyors of our nation’s history. In the tradition of Pierre Burton (and others), Barris once again combines exhaustive research, compelling story-telling with his clear love of this country’s stories to create a thoroughly readable look at the largely forgotten story of the steamboats of the Canadian prairie waterways.
Fire Canoe—the name came from the First Nations people, some of whom were terrified at the noise and sight of the wondrous vessels while others were employed to pilot them through often tricky waters. The ships themselves were the very definition of multi-taskers and their stories leap off the pages of Barris’s book. The vessels played important roles in war (The Riel Rebellion), in transporting the goods needed for a growing west , in dredging for gold at river’s bottom and in providing fun, not only for those who toiled on the ships but those on shore as well. But perhaps, most of all, the steamboats were home to a cast of characters–rascals, builders, villains and heroes and Barris, as he does so well, has them leaping off the pages and into our hearts.
One of those characters, Jimmy Soles (his father had rafted his family over six hundred miles from Medicine Hat to Prince Albert) eventually became part of the crew of the Hudson Bay Company’s stern-wheeler, the Saskatchewan.
“We danced at every place we stopped downriver—The Pas, Cumberland, Chemahawin, Cedar Lake—if we were going to be there overnight, we had
a dance. . . . The Indians called them fiddle dances,” mused Soles, who called
at all the dances “especially if I knew I didn’t have to get up ’til about noon
the next day. . . . Oh those square-dances. . . . The first trip I made with the Saskatchewan, we had a dance at Cumberland and there was an Indian fellow
playin’ the fiddle. He had a fiddle alright, and a willow bent with horse hair on it.
And he only could play the one tune, ‘Little Brown Jug.’ We danced to that all night.”
Ted Barris has become one of the most important and gifted chroniclers of Canada’s often fascinating and sadly, just-as-often forgotten past. Barris is doing all he can to remedy that unfortunate reality, and Fire Canoe is another feather in his well-decorated cap.
Links to purchase Ted’s book: