Prisoners of the North


328 pages
Contains Photos, Index
ISBN 0-385-66046-4
DDC 971.9'009'9





Reviewed by Kerry Abel

Kerry Abel is a professor of history at Carleton University. She is the author of Drum Songs: Glimpses of Dene History, co-editor of Aboriginal Resource Use in Canada: Historical and Legal Aspects, and co-editor of Northern Visions: New Perspectives on the North in Canadian History.


Woe betide the reviewer asked to provide posthumous comment on a book by
one of Canada’s most beloved writers. It is tempting to trot out the
clichés: this book is vintage Berton, full of colourful characters and
compelling stories. But these trite comments seem inadequate for a book
that, in a curious way, stands as a sort of summary of the author’s
life and provides a more fitting requiem than the many tributes paid to
him in the weeks following his death.

Here we meet five characters of northern legend (Joe Boyle, Vilhjalmur
Stefansson, Jane Franklin, John Hornby, and Robert Service) whom Pierre
Berton admires for their individualism, disdain for authority,
independence, and dogged ambitions. He sees them as romantic figures
from a “vanishing age,” although the romance has a hard modern edge
because he also exposes their flaws and contradictions. However, these
characters may also be read as aspects of Berton’s own life. There is
Boyle, the ordinary man who is able to make a name for himself because
of his northern connection. There is Stefansson, the white man (and
journalist) who becomes a part of the north by becoming his

own Blond Eskimo. There is Franklin, the indomitable woman who makes an
ordinary man into something extraordinary. There is Hornby, determined
to be rugged and driven by a restlessness he does not understand. And
finally, there is Service, the famous and wealthy writer who baffled the
academic critics and “could never escape the Yukon, no matter how much
he tried.”

All of these characters have been subjects of book-length studies, but
here their stories are brought together in Berton’s unique style.
There is grand adventure in these tales, but there is also great
poignancy, for in the author’s observation that his characters were
all “driven by an ambition” that ultimately “turned out to be a
chimera,” was he reflecting on more than just his subjects’ lives?


Berton, Pierre., “Prisoners of the North,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed May 30, 2024,