Misao Dean’s Inheriting a Canoe Paddle offers a complex, compelling examination of the place of the canoe and canoe literature in the construction of English-Canadian national identity. As she writes, ‘the canoe is still an important means by which urban Canadians like myself claim a first-hand experience of the landscape and a sense of themselves in relation to it’ (p. 7). Of course, English-Canadian national identity is not merely forged in relation to the natural surroundings and the natural inheritance of the Canadian landscape but also about the relationship and cultural interaction with others, be they American, British, French-Canadian or First Nations. It is the last that is most profoundly examined in this book: ‘if my paddle represents my desire, as a non-indigenous Canadian, to be vitally and historically and spiritually connected to place, indigenous to Canada, then this book represents both the loss of that dream for me and my attempt to disrupt, trouble, and denaturalize that dream for other non-indigenous Canadians’. It is, Dean records, ‘the only justifiable way to call oneself Canadian in the twenty-first century’ ( pp. 16-17).
The book opens with a personal memoir of Dean’s own inheritance of her father’s canoe paddle before giving way elsewhere in the introduction to other forms of and ideas about cultural inheritance. This moves into eight chapters, each with a distinctive theme. The first chapter draws on David Bentley’s notion of ‘uncannyda’, that is, the sense of having a link to the landscape but one that evokes ‘the other’ and results in ‘kinds of illusion or vertigo’ (p. 18). Engaging with a wide range of canoe literature, principally the work of Margaret Atwood, the discussion that follows draws the reader into the underlying postcolonial analysis, oftentimes most effectively. Chapter 2 moves from literature to historiography, this time leaning partially on the ideas of Hayden White. This chapter recalls to mind Ian McKay’s great work The Quest of the Folk: Antimodernism and Cultural Selection in Twentieth Century Nova Scotia (1994) and concludes in a similar kind of way, the ‘folk’ (in this instance, canoeists) obscuring wider conflicts. Chapters 3 and 4 dissect wilderness canoeing and canoe pageantry. Chapters 5 and 6 tease out the relationship between canoeing, ‘the north’ and ‘northernness’, and provide fulfilling engagement not only with the discrete matter of canoeing in the northern wilderness but also its place in constructing the idea of the north. Chapter 7 turns its critical attention to the Canadian Canoe Museum. This is the weakest chapter of the book. It feels a little out of place and, given the author has sacrificed a full conclusion, could certainly have been left out without harming the overall impact. Finally, chapter 8 turns back to the postcolonial theme that has bubbled under the surface throughout. Here the subject matter is turned on its head: rather than non-indigenous Canadians seeking to become indigenous, we have indigenous Canadians endeavouring to decolonise their own heritage.
Inheriting a Canoe Paddle is a comfortable companion to an increasingly broad critical literature on the supposedly ‘natural’ facets of Canadianness. It is a book that challenges and prompts reconsiderations. Resting alongside examinations of the north, of hockey, of the Nova Scotian folk and of the ‘peaceable nation’, Misao Dean’s fascinating book is a must-read for anyone interested in Canada, national identity, cultural objects and questions of Canadianness.