Thursday, September 4, 2014

Canoe Mates in Canada, Or, Three Boys Afloat on the Saskatchewan

by Pa Rock

St. George Rathbone was a dime novelist of early twentieth century America who primarily wrote adventure tales for boys.  Rathbone wrote  under his own name as well as several pseudonyms, and he is believed to have penned at least 330 books during his sixty-year writing career.

Rathbone, a native of Kentucky, wrote Canoe Mates in Canada in 1912.  In that book he told the story of two young men who were traversing the wilds of northern Canada in an expensive canoe just before winter set in.  One day, while camped at the foot of a set of dangerous rapids, they observed another young man who was obviously in trouble in the raging waters.  The duo managed to get him safely to shore where they showed him some warm wilderness hospitality - and the stranger soon joined their expedition.  (Rathbone referred to the three  as "boys" throughout the novel, but their circumstances suggest that they were, at the very least, older teens verging on adulthood.)

The two "boys" in the expensive wooden canoe were from the States.  Cuthbert Reynolds, the leader of the team, was a somewhat wealthy New Englander whose goal in life was to become an explorer.  His partner, Eli Perkins, was from the backwoods of Michigan and had a history as a lumberman.  Eli was constantly on the lookout for copper - his intended method of making his fortune.

The "boy" who was careening down the rapids in a ragtag canoe was Owen Dugdale, a fellow of mystery who appeared to be fleeing something sinister.

Cuthbert and Eli had been heading upstream (north) toward a Hudson Bay Company outpost called Ft. Harmony.  Owen had been paddling south, away from Ft. Harmony and it's absolute ruler, an old "factor" by the name of Alexander Gregory.  When Owen agreed to join Cuthbert and Eli, the first friends this lad of the woods had ever known, it put him on a course to confront his past.

Rathbone had a good knowledge of life in the woods of northern Canada.  He devoted an entire chapter of the book to techniques of trapping and skinning of animals - with his extensive expertise in those areas being voiced through Owen, a lifelong backwoodsman, as he enlightened his new friends on some of the skills needed to survive and make a living in the Canadian wilderness.  Rathbone's book also had a quantity of background and operational information on the Hudson Bay Company, a business enterprise that had a stranglehold on the American fur trade for more than two centuries - and is currently in its 344th year of continuous operation.

In addition to providing a good insight into how things really worked in the Canadian wilderness at the beginning of the twentieth century, Rathbone managed to tell a good story.   It put me in mind of Burton L. Spiller's Northland Castaways which was written a couple of decades later.    Both writers possessed the ability to transport readers so far into the Canadian wilderness that they began to neither miss nor care about the modern trappings of civilization - and both remembered all what it was like to be a boy in search of adventure.

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