On a hill more than thirty years ago, I first heard the unmistakeable voice of Stan Rogers. It was the Edmonton Folk Music Festival in 1982. As the hot August sun beat down my haltered back, the bearded balladeer’s muscular baritone percussed through the grounds like a drumbeat, tossing flimsy-voiced folksingers in its wake, demanding that we pay attention to the stories of our country, that we be upstanding for the narrative of Canada. And so I stood.

Northwest Passage Stan RogersCanadians love to talk about what it means to be Canadian. That we have yet to reach a consensus is proof that we are a diverse people. Diverse, and indecisive. Still, there is common ground: a national predilection for caffeinated beverages in the name of a deceased hockey player, doughnuts from said deceased hockey player, hockey, snow, and, for a lot of us, the music of Stan Rogers.

I knew him through my music-loving sister, who wept the day he died in 1983 at the age of 33. “Who will sing about us?”, she said. Indeed. Folksingers abound, but few tell stories that enrich a nation’s perception of itself, and even fewer take on the lead-lined pages of a failed northern expedition and turn it into a song that endures. Northwest Passage by Governor General award nominee Matt James is not only a celebration of the Stan Roger’s most famous song, it is also a glimpse into an historical event that still resonates into the 21st century.

Northwest Passage road trip

Sir John Franklin is the name most often associated with the elusive Northwest Passage. Although Roald Amundsen was the first to successfully navigate the route two decades later, it is Franklin’s doomed voyage that we remember. (Stories of hubris, especially 19th century seafaring hubris involving ice-bound ghost Northwest Passage John Franklinships and cannibalism does have a way of piquing our interest.) Details of the British naval captain’s life and expeditions interspersed throughout the book provide fascinating background to the rousing lyrics penned by Rogers. In 1845, following several previous expeditions to the Arctic, Franklin set out to find a shorter route to Asia through the polar region of Canada on board the Erebus, and its sister ship, the appropriately named Terror. Franklin hauled enough supplies, including masses of poorly sealed tinned food (and 1500 books), for the duration of the journey. It was common for ships to be locked in ice for months at a time during the winter. The Erebus and the Terror became trapped in ice off King William Island in 1846 and never sailed again. Franklin died in 1847. The men deserted the ships, suffering the usual misfortunes of arctic exploration. The lucky ones froze to death.

Northwest Passage panelStan Rogers was so captivated by the adventurous spirit of Franklin and Canada’s early explorers that he set out on a road trip west,”tracing one warm line through a land so wide and savage.‘ A road trip, as anyone who has ever traveled cross-country can attest, is as much a journey of the mind as an accumulation of kilometres. As Rogers no doubt discovered, centuries after our emblematic explorers mapped this vast land, the ‘wide’ and the ‘savage’ still exists, if in ever diminishing quantity. James’ rises to the challenge, applying thick smears and splatters of acrylic and ink to paint a visionary picture of Canada as seen through the contemporary eyes of a folksinger, and in vignettes of imagined history, often on the same page.

Northwest Passage hare

The gorgeous (and occasionally humourous) illustrations have a visual ferocity that perfectly captures the primitive, achingly beautiful landscapes and harsh environmental conditions that surely met Samuel de Champlain, Alexander MacKenzie, David Thompson, John Franklin, and all the other adventurers who ‘cracked the mountain ramparts‘ and ‘…raced the roaring Fraser to the sea.’ While Rogers’ lyrics pull us across the land and into another century, the predominate use of blue in James’ illustrations centres the story in Arctic Canada. As the ships sail to their fate, polar bears, narwhals, walruses and hares watch indifferently in the foreground, as do the Inuit, a resource that Franklin, perhaps fatally, never tapped.

Northwest Passage overland

Matt James has done a masterful job of collecting and presenting information about the quest to find the Northwest Passage, and in reigniting the legend of Stan Rogers. A gallery of early Canadian explorers and a comprehensive bibliography concludes this book. Northwest Passage is a stunning window into Canada’s past. It is also timely. As global warming accelerates and arctic ice recedes, international interest in our northern lands, including the Northwest Passage (now open sea) is as fervent as in the era of arctic exploration.

Northwest Passage travellerLike Stan Rogers, my sister passed away young, less than twenty years after the news arrived that her beloved folksinger had died in a plane crash. She would have been proud, but perhaps not surprised that his song Northwest Passage had inspired a Canadian artist to write and illustrate such a beautiful, and fiercely homegrown picture book. A book about Canada. A book, and a song, about us.

Woodstock, Ontario native Matt James is a painter, illustrator and musician. His first picture book, Yellow Moon, Apple Moon by Pamela Porter was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award. I Know Here by Laurel Croza won the Marilyn Baillie Picture Book Award, and was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award, the TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award, the Ruth and Sylvia Schwartz Children’s Book Award and the Amelia Frances Howard-Gibbon Illustrator’s Award. Matt lives in Toronto.

Stan Rogers was born in Hamilton, Ontario in 1949. He was famous throughout the English speaking world of folk music for his distinctive, baritone voice and stirring songwriting. He began his musical career as a rock bassist, and then started writing songs about his Maritime roots, recorded on his first album, Fogerty’s Cove. He was a traveller and a balladeer, finding inspiration in the people and places of Canada. Stan Rogers died in an aircraft fire in 1983.

Northwest Passage by Stan Rogers, with illustrations and historical text by Matt James. Published by Groundwood Books/House of Anansi Press, 2013

UPDATE NOVEMBER 13, 2013: Northwest Passage wins the Governor General Award for Illustration. Congratulations Matt James!

I would also like to recommend Frozen in Time (non-fiction) by Owen Beattie and John Geiger, The Terror (historical…and rather fantastical fiction) by Dan Simmons, and of course, the music of Stan Rogers.