Thursday, March 6, 2008

Book Review: Birchbark Canoe

Birchbark Canoe
By David Gidmark

Review by Bob Holtzman

Subject matter and methodology aren't the only similarities between David Gidmark's Birchbark Canoe and John McPhee's much better-known The Survival of the Bark Canoe. Both are indeed about the same kind of craft; both are extended profiles of an individual builder of same; and both were written quite a few years ago -- Gidmark's in 1989, McPhee's in 1982. The most striking similarity, however, is how unpleasant said builder was.

McPhee's book focuses on Indian canoe builder Henri Vaillancourt, who comes across as a dedicated egomaniac, a pretty good craftsman who feels that everything he touches is fine art. Gidmark's William Maranda, a Quebecois Algonquin, in contrast, is an unforgiving racist who blames the white race for just about anything that crosses his mind while, at the same time, enjoying American soap operas and 4WD pickup trucks.

Gidmark became interested in bark canoes as a youth when he first observed a building demonstration -- apparently a not very skillful or authentic one, but one that impressed him nonetheless. His interest became so intense and so sincere that he moved to the Quebec town of Manawaki to learn canoe building from Maranda, one of the few remaining Algonquin builders. Maranda promptly turned down Gidmark's request based, it seems, on his disdain for the white race, but Gidmark had become so enamored of Algonquin culture that he settled into the town and began studying the language, the process of moose-hide curing, and other traditional skills and traditions. After observing him for more than a year, Maranda consented to teach him the craft, but he remained distant, never offering praise or encouragement.

Eventually, Gidmark learned to build a bark canoe under Maranda's teaching, using pretty authentic methods. He then hooked up with a couple other native builders, Jocko Carle and Patrick Maranda, the latter a relative of William's. Jocko and Patrick proved to be much more pleasant, sympathetic teachers, and Gidmark's experience in Manawaki was ultimately a positive one, largely because of them.

I read the original 1989 General Store edition of Gidmark's book which was an interesting read, but was not professionally edited or produced and suffered in its readability on those accounts, being somewhat halting in its diction and disjointed in the flow of the narrative. The book was republished in 1997 by Firefly, shown below (it appears to be still in print), but I haven't seen this and don't know if further editing was done to improve its readability. Gidmark has published several other related books, including a how-to book on building bark canoes based on the experience that he relates in Birchbark Canoe.
Many thanks to Panera in Augusta, Maine, where most of these posts have been written. Good salads, bread, and wireless access!

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