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August 8, 2008

So Wild A Dream

Filed under: 150 Best Minnesota Books — Pat Coleman @ 1:50 pm

I just returned from my most arduous canoe trip in years [an estimated 65,000 - 75,000 paddle strokes] reminding me that I’m not 20 years old anymore. Four friends and I retraced a trip in the Quetico that Aldo Leopold took in 1922. Tom, one of my canoe mates, was reading Eric Sevareid’s Canoeing with the Cree, which also reminded me that we have not officially placed this classic on our list of best books, so here it is:

Arnold Sevareid. Canoeing with the Cree. New York: Macmillan, 1935.

This is the book most often recommended to me as one of Minnesota’s 150 best books. I couldn’t agree more, but I admit that I am a bit surprised by such wide spread agreement. This true adventure story begins on the Minnesota River at Fort Snelling and ends a harrowing four months and 2,250 miles later in Hudson Bay. I won’t take away any of the pleasure of a full reading, but Tom marked two passages in his copy with campfire charcoal that I’ll share. The first passage comes when the boys, using horrible maps and bad advice, had just come life threateningly close to missing the outlet of the God’s River.

Half a mile westward and suddenly we were in a strong current. Again we had done it! And missed the river by only half a mile!

“Mr. Sevareid,” said Walt pompously, extending his hand like an archduke, “I congratulate you, rawther splendid you know.”

“Sir Port, positively gorgeous. You, my lord, not I, deserve the plaudits of these gaping multitudes.”

But only the spruce and the birch could witness our triumph.

This proved the truth of an earlier passage that Tom had marked…

This was another indication of something we came to realize many times before we reached home, that the God who guides the footsteps of errant fools most certainly was riding on the weathered prow of the Sans Souci [their canoe].

I love the last paragraph of this coming of age story…

We went by the school, sitting on its terraces among the yellow trees. As we drew nearer and nearer to home, high-school boys and girls passed us on their way to classes. We realized that we were looking at them through different eyes. We realized that our shoulders were not tired under the weight of our packs. It was as though we had suddenly become men and were boys no longer.

I recommend collectors find a copy of the first edition. It was published under Eric’s original name, Arnold, and the dust jacket has an image canoeists will find familiar, a photo by Sevareid of Walter Port’s bare back in the bow of Sans Souci. The edition currently in print is, however, the best. It contains an introduction by Ann Bancroft, who wisely sums up the one of the reasons this book is timeless: “Only our acceptance, our willingness to go where we are small and where we need to respect the power and objectivity of nature, makes it possible for us to experience a hero’s journey. And we are all eager for that journey.”

There can’t be any better place to read a book than sitting on jack pine needle covered granite in canoe country. Other books we painfully carried over countless portages? The Secret Life of Lobsters, Steinbeck’s Sea of Cortez, and Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto. I love the juxtaposition of reading gritty urban novels in the wilderness, so I brought along John Banville’s Dublin in his Christine Falls.

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12 Responses to “So Wild A Dream”

  1. John Gostovich Says:

    Great Blog!

  2. John Gostovich Says:

    Great Blog…. but I’ve had to retry the “Captcha” three times. It’s beyond stupid!

  3. Patrick Coleman Says:

    Welcome to the 150 best books bolg, John. Be sure to begin at the beginning. I’m certain that you will have some suggestions and pithy comments if you can tolerate the anti-spam thing. Feel free too, to share the bolg.


  4. Bob Horton Says:

    Better places to read a book? Goodness, where to start? I like the couch at home, with a couple of cats at hand, and there are a few bars and cafes I remember, more or less. I suppose the granite would help to keep one awake laboring through Banville’s rather cliched plot …

  5. Patrick Coleman Says:

    Nice sharp tongue [or pen], Bob. Of course Banville’s plot is clichéd. As Benjamin Black he is having fun with his literary slumming. And is there a mystery book that isn’t a cliché? Still, he has to be one of the greatest living Irish writers. His Booker Prize winning “The Sea” is a nearly perfect novel.

  6. Mark Davis Says:

    Pat, I always enjoy your thoughtful and knowledgeable comments on Minnesota literature, and books in general. I don’t think readers could get the sort of informed and personal perspective you provide from anyone else in Minnesota.–Mark Davis

  7. Patrick Coleman Says:

    Thanks for the kind words, Mark. Not to put you on the spot but, as Macalester College’s DeWitt Wallace Professor in Biology, what was your opinion on entry’s #8, 9, and 10 (the natural history books)?

  8. Pamela McClanahan Says:

    Well, novels, yes but a small book of poetry is also perfect. You can take earned quarters from your canoe mates after reciting your memorized lines around the fire; you can read short little bits before sleep while the owls hoot about you. Last time I brought the quirky poems of Stevie Smith:

    Not Waving but Drowning
    by Stevie Smith

    Nobody heard him, the dead man,
    But still he lay moaning:
    I was much further out than you thought
    And not waving but drowning.

    Poor chap, he always loved larking
    And now he’s dead
    It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
    They said.

    Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
    (Still the dead one lay moaning)
    I was much too far out all my life
    And not waving but drowning.

  9. Phil Freshman Says:

    Thanks, Pat, for reminding us about this keystone Minnesota book and for expressing its qualities so well. I finally got around to reading it this past year, after it had sat on the shelf for about a decade, because I wanted to be able to recommend it sincerely to my teenage son. I quickly became immersed in it and see that its reputation was more than well-deserved. Sevareid’s calling as an honest and penetrating reporter and observer is there for all to see–at the tender age of 18. I not only sincerely but also heartily recommended it to my son because he has a tremendous love of testing himself in nature (most especially in the northern MN woods), and it is my hope that he gets off his digitally planted butt and plants himself in front of Canoeing with the Cree.

  10. Lois Demers Says:

    Thanks for the terrific presentation at AAUW this morning. You were the talk of our lunch table, mostly with people having renewed interest in visiting your organization. I am definitely going to see the map exhibit. This blog will also be a regular stop on my internet activity.

    Patrick Coleman reply on March 3rd, 2009:

    Thanks for the kind words, Lois. Let me know when you are coming to the MHS. If you have the time and inclination I’ll offer a “behind the scenes” tour. I can’t wait for your comments on the 150 Best Minnesota Books.

  11. John Helland Says:

    I have to echo what Mark Davis says about Pat’s knowledge of literature and his passion for great books. We are very lucky that the MHS and Minnesota employs him, and lets us explore his vast knowledge in this useful blog.
    Canoeing with the Cree is a wonderful book, full of discovery and excitement for teenagers entering adulthood. And it was exciting last year to see the youths from Chaska retrace the Port/Sevareid journey.
    Pat surely knows the literature about canoes and wilderness, and so glad he shares it with those that should read this blog. Thank you, Pat!

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