The odd thing about A History of Canada in Ten Maps, the new book by Adam Shoalts out today from Allen Lane, is that it’s almost entirely uncontaminated by maps. It’s not just because the electronic review copy I received (via Netgalley) contained no images of the maps being referred to in the text: I expect that will be rectified in the published version; if nothing else I was able to find an online version of each map (a gallery follows below). It’s that in the text itself the maps are quite literally an afterthought.
It turns out that A History of Canada in Ten Maps isn’t really a book about maps, or mapmaking, but exploration. For Shoalts, the maps are the evidentiary traces of the stories he really wants to tell. In nine of the ten cases, those are stories of Canada’s exploration; in the tenth, a key battle of the War of 1812. Combined, those stories form a mosaic tale of nation-building, one that supports the kind of national mythmaking that the previous government in Canada was particularly fond of.
Each story, from the Vikings’ earliest explorations of North America, through the journeys of the inland explorers of the fur trade to the Franklin expedition, is engagingly told. Shoalts does know how to spin a tale. Drawing on contemporary accounts, explorers’ journals and letters, he recounts fairly traditional narratives of the various expeditions that are nonetheless vivid and bracing: we feel the starvation, the privation, the threat, the cold. But from an historiographical perspective this book neither breaks new ground nor adds anything to our understanding. In terms of method it’s a bit of a throwback: it centres significant historical figures who are hardly unknown to Canadians: Champlain, Radisson, Hearne, Mackenzie, Thompson and so forth. It could have been published a half-century ago without raising any eyebrows.
Readers expecting something about maps will be disappointed. Despite the title, this is not the Canadian version of Jerry Brotton’s History of the World in Twelve Maps. In most chapters the maps get only the briefest of mentions, sometimes less than a paragraph; and sometimes their connection to the enterprise being described is somewhat tenuous or after the fact. As a narrative conceit, shaping the history of the exploration of Canada around a set of maps is not a bad one, but Shoalts fails to meet the expectations he himself has raised. In the end, I think he ended up being led by his primary sources, telling the stories they wanted to tell rather than the story his own structure demanded.