Virtual Voyages: A Reading List by Charlotte Gill

Charlotte Gill

My favourite definition of creative nonfiction comes from Canadian journalist Deborah Campbell, who quotes the late Ryszard Kapuscinski, an undeniable master of the form: “Sometimes, in describing what I do, I resort to the Latin phrase silva rerum: the forest of things. That’s my subject: the forest of things, as I've seen it, living and travelling in it.” There’s a bit of silva rerum in all these books on this list, which is by no means an exhaustive collection. Some are travel books, and some explorations stick close to home. But all these stories took me on journeys. When I closed the covers I felt as if I’d been transported.

Book Cover The Golden Spruce

1. The Golden Spruce, John Vaillant: Perhaps it took a native New Englander to see the magical, mythic potential of a true story set in Haida Gwaii. The book takes place in the temperate rainforest, and it’s a mystery on the surface. Vaillant introduces us to Grant Hadwin, the crazy ex-logger who felled an ancient albino spruce and then disappeared from the face of the earth, seemingly without a trace. Underneath the suspenseful stuff is a fascinating exploration of the background and ecology of the region, the long legacy of resource extraction, and a cultural history of the Haida. Though Vaillant himself is not part of the story, his intelligence and perceptiveness are on every page. I’ve read this book a few times, and it just keeps getting better.

Book Cover The last Heathen

2. The Last Heathen, Charles Montgomery: Montgomery travelled to the Melanesian archipelago, ostensibly to retrace the footsteps of his great-grandfather, a South Seas missionary and author of The Light of Melanesia. But beyond the first chapter, the story takes on a deeper, fascinating imperative. Montgomery is hunting for magic in a land of totems, spells and curses. The author trips from island to island on tipsy cargo barges, through storms, baking heat, and queasy rolling seas. There are plenty of kava-slurping adventures, not to mention “earthquake stones,” voodoo-style rituals, and hikes in the shadows of active volcanoes. The book is beautifully written, weaving together history and anthropology: cargo cults, war, colonial history—all of which contribute to the seemingly paradoxical coexistence of Christianity and paganism in Melanesia. There is something shadowy and mythic about this world as Montgomery paints it. I felt if as if I was looking over his shoulder, eager to witness something transcendent and miraculous.

Book Cover Gold Diggers

3. Gold Diggers, Charlotte Gray: Pre-eminent biographer and historian Charlotte Gray brings the Yukon gold rush to life. The book follows the northern lives of six men and women: a prospector, a priest, a young, entrepreneurial woman, a journalist, a cop, and a novelist. The most compelling part of the narrative for me was the mundane details of those gritty arctic lives, which were full of hardships, lice and deprivation—every kind of inconvenience a person could endure, all in the name of gold fever. The voyage to Dawson City at the end of the 19th century was itself a feat of human endurance. As you'd expect, the book is impeccably researched. I could almost imagine myself poling up the Yukon River while slapping mosquitoes from my neck.

Book Cover Pathologies

4. Pathologies, Susan Olding: The memoir has lately been much-abused, sensational at one extreme and falsified at the other. Olding’s book read to me like a kind of literary antidote. Her book contains fifteen personal essays that are both sharply observant and deeply honest. They chronicle various periods in Olding’s life, with each essay acting like a facet in a prism. At the end I was left with a version of a whole psyche--a complicated, fascinating sensibility. Olding writes about her own life with the gentle impartiality of a surgeon, which is fitting, since medicine and healing are motifs that run throughout. The best essays have to do with the adoption of her daughter from China. They form an eloquent meditation on motherhood.

Book Cover Baltimore's Manions

5. Baltimore’s Mansions, Wayne Johnston: This is another memoir, the story of Johnston’s Newfoundland boyhood. It’s a multigenerational family saga, really. An affectionate portrait of a father-son relationship with all its imperfections. The writing is crisp and elegant. I loved that the book’s most profound moments are also the most ordinary. Johnston’s anecdotes unfold as simple, everyday events, without forced conflict or sappy drama. A trip by train across the island. The preparation of a meal of cod tongues. The book also captures Newfoundland society in the years following Confederation. Johnston describes a land struggling to come to terms with its new Canadian identity. It’s an unabashedly nostalgic, sensuous picture of life on The Rock, which was as rustic and rugged back then as the bouldery, weather-battered landscape.

Book Cover trauma Farm

6. Trauma Farm, Brian Brett: For the last two decades Brett and his wife Sharon have tended a small farm on Saltspring Island. They keep lush gardens and an ever-growing family of barnyard animals, all of which are a source of affection, frustration and comedy. There are 24 chapters—one devoted to every hour of a day at Trauma Farm. But the story is much broader than that. It’s a bundle of fascinating things: memoir, natural history, locavore manifesto, as well as an impassioned argument against agribusiness. Brett is also a poet, and every sentence is a delight.

Book Cover Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary

7. Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary, Andrew Westoll: Andrew Westoll spent three months volunteering at Fauna Sanctuary in Quebec, a refuge for chimpanzees retired from their “careers” as research animals in the biomedical industry. Westoll gives an illuminating and poignant account of the primates who live at the facility, which I’ll describe as equal parts jungle gym, prison and chimp spa. By extension, the story is just as much about their caretaker, the indefatigable Gloria Grow. I was surprised to learn how strong, dangerous and essentially wild chimps are, even when they’ve been “domesticated.” As you’d expect, the story takes an eye-opening look at the complicated relationship we humans have developed with our primate cousins, a contact that has produced some pretty tragic consequences. Remarkably enough, this book is also pretty funny. The chimps, for all their post-traumatic stress, are costume-wearing, smoothie-flinging weisenheimers. I’d fallen in love with them by the end, which I’d guess was the author’s intention.

Book Cover Eating Dirt

Charlotte Gill's most recent book is Eating Dirt: Deep Forests, Big Timber, and Life with the Tree-Planting Tribe, which was recently shortlisted for the Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize. She is also the author of the short story collection Ladykiller, a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award for fiction and winner of the Danuta Gleed Award and the B.C. Book Prize for fiction. Her work has appeared in Best Canadian Stories, The Journey Prize Stories, and many magazines. She lives in Vancouver.

October 10, 2011
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