Red Serge and Polar Bear Pants


385 pages
Contains Photos, Maps, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-88864-433-7
DDC 971.9'02'092





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.


It is a curious fact that the Mountie is an instantly recognized symbol
of Canada, yet we know almost nothing about the real lives of individual
members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and little about their
contributions to Canadian history beyond a few significant events on the
prairies. In this biography, we follow the life and adventures of
Englishman Harry Stallworthy (1895–1976) as he falls in love with the
Canadian Arctic and a Canadian teacher. For Stall-worthy, as for his
biographer, the highlights of a northern career were his expeditions
through Ellesmere Island by dog team in the 1930s, searching for food
supplies and a missing German geologist, and helping to ensure the
safety of some young Oxford explorer-adventurers.

Willia Barr, a respected senior geographer of the Arctic, based the
book on an extensive collection of Stallworthy’s personal papers. Both
Stallworthy and his wife were skilled writers, and their own
observations (quoted extensively) are the best part of the book. Through
their words, we see a now-vanished life in the Canadian Arctic and
subarctic, and obtain occasional glimpses into the personal lives of the
men and women who lived at isolated posts. Stallworthy’s life was

The book is not without its flaws, however. Many sections follow the
rhythm of a long day in a dogsled, an endless repetition of one dog paw
landing on the snow in front of the print left by the last. There are
too many details (like the weight of the daily fish catch) that
interfere with the storyline and leave the reader puzzled about their
significance. There are a number of typographical and other errors (such
as the incorrect identification on page 194 of a photo that is clearly
St. Matthew’s Anglican Church in my Ottawa neighbourhood). And
insufficient historical background is developed to put Stallworthy’s
activities into context or explain their significance, although a brief
introduction by historian Bill Morrison helps.

Nevertheless, for readers who enjoy armchair Arctic travel in the
Boy’s Own adventure genre, this book will be welcome. Those who read
carefully between the lines will also learn a great deal about what
being a Mountie meant to one very interesting man and his family.


Barr, Willia., “Red Serge and Polar Bear Pants,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed February 28, 2024,