The first example is small and merely personal. The D.R. was a terrific read when I was a child, and Prime Minister Eliot Trudeau was guided on the Nahanni River in 1972. In my teens I read the book again as I learned to use a canoe and kayak. The memory of Patterson's journey served me well when a writing assignment came my way years later, to do a biography of Will Hobbs, writer of many young adult adventure novels. One of Hobbs's most successful novels was The Far North, set on the Nahanni River. I was glad to know that when writing the novel, Hobbs read the D.R., but drew on his own experiences paddling the Nahanni with his wife. So, I mused, Hobbs's research included a book I knew well. That helped me understand how Hobbs struggled to compose his novel while he was in the field. He was only able to write the book when he was at home, thinking about the trip. That reminded me of Patterson at his home near Sidney BC in 1953, writing the D.R. more than twenty years after the events recorded in his journal. And there I was, at my isolated home north of Edmonton, writing about the process of writing about a river journey. Very circular.
The second example is larger and more public. It came this fall when I was reading a review by Richard C. Davis of David Finch`s biography RM Patterson: a life of great adventure. Immediately afterward, I found a review by Paul Huebener of Nahanni Journals: R.M. Patterson's 1927-1929 Journals, which was edited by Richard C. Davis. At this point, I was happy to find that I'd learned a little about Richard C. Davis and what makes him a Patterson scholar.
For one thing, reading these reviews showed me that Davis is aware of the appeal that Patterson as an author. "Patterson was able to make bold and adventurous choices about how he lived because he enjoyed the privileges of wealth," Davis observes that he read early in Finch's biography, adding that "a personality that can be as comfortable among the refined audience of a London opera house as it is with poorly educated trappers has an appeal of its own."
For another thing, I'd learned a little about how Patterson's journals were edited by Davis. There`s a world of difference between the journals that Patterson kept during his travels, which were addressed to his mother, and the creative nonfiction work The Dangerous River that he wrote based on this material. "The journals reveal certain elements of The Dangerous River to be fabrications," notes reviewer Huebener. "Davis' editorial choices in transcribing the unpolished journal entries are conscientious but unobtrusive." Those are two qualities that I value in an editor. As well, I value the third thing I learned about Davis: he is perceptive in what comments to make about another writer's work. Davis noted in his review of Finch's biography that "Finch speculates, and he is likely correct, that as Patterson matured, 'he rewrote the past to reflect the kind of person he would have liked to have been that summer of 1927' (p. 96)."
So what kind of person would Patterson have liked to have been when he was on the Nahanni? Clearly, Patterson the writer wanted to present himself as a capable man, confident that he was a peer of the capable people who had survived this wilderness. "I dropped off to sleep by the fire, very snug with the warm rocks of the cave around and above me," Patterson wrote on page 154 of the Allen and Unwin edition, "and behind me a long line of copper-coloured hunters reaching far back into the darkness of forgotten centuries."
Patterson also wanted to show himself as a man of good humour. His sense of humour shows most openly in the scene of the pancakes, which he described on page 243 as occurring "rather in the early Chaplin manner." My favourite humourous scene, though is the one near the end of the book on page 234 where Patterson is appalled by his companion Gordon's elaborate cursing of their sled dogs, collectively and severally, "to various hells, including... a certain prideful eastern city."
The scene that works best to show Patterson as a storyteller comes at the beginning of chapter 7, on page 239, when a group of Nahanni Indians visit the cabin Patterson has built with his friend. Here Patterson keeps his good humour harnessed, letting it keep the tone of the scene light but not silly. It's a short scene, in which Patterson represents himself as doing right by his guests, as other First Nations people had done for him in the past. It's a realistic scene, in which real men come to the cabin, drink an abundance of good tea and show their approval by sharing meat as they are leaving. Even so, it has an air of subtle magic. The men who enter the cabin could have walked out of the past instead of out of the surrounding forest. Though the characters speak and act simply during this sequence, it's not a simple scene. It's a metaphor. Patterson wrote this scene to show that he learned about the place and people and was accepted there. The skill of Patterson the writer is subtler here than when he describes Gordon cursing the dogs. In the cursing scene, the writer has plenty of interaction and dialogue to describe in colourful terms. But in the scene of the visiting Nahannis, what is remarkable is how quietly and calmly the little sequence is told. There is almost no dialogue, and no colourful descriptions of people and movements. This scene is an example of very contained and controlled storytelling without all the hoo-rah of burning pancakes or dogfights.
I will have to linger over a copy of Nahanni Journals and see if there is a journal entry corresponding to the Nahannis visiting scene. As a writer, I could learn a lot from comparing the journal notes with the crafted scene. Huebener comments that "The journal entries themselves, which Patterson accurately admits 'are all much the same - got up, travelled & went to bed,' are nevertheless intriguing in terms of the literary construction of wilderness travel experience." That`s an interesting turn of phrase – literary construction of wilderness travel experience. The writing of one`s wilderness travel experience is not merely a documentary recording all the facts, momentous or trivial, but a literary construction of the story the writer means to tell out of all that raw data experienced during travel in the wilderness. Sometimes the story comes full circle.
Finch, David, and Davis, Richard C (REVIEWER). Rev. of: "RM Patterson: a life of great adventure by David Finch." Arctic 54.3 (2001): 342. CBCA Reference and Current Events, ProQuest. Web. 18 Oct. 2011.
Huebener, Paul. "Representing Wilderness Travel." Canadian Literature/Littérature canadienne: a quarterly of criticism and review (Univ. of British Columbia, Vancouver) (202) Autumn 2009, 127-129,155.
Patterson, Raymond Murray. The Dangerous River. London, UK: George Allen and Unwin Ltd., 1954.
Patterson, Raymond Murray. The Dangerous River. Sidney, BC: Gray's Publishing, 1966.
Patterson, Raymond Murray; Richard C. Davis, ed. Nahanni Journals: R.M. Patterson's 1927-1929 Journals. Edmonton, AB: University of Alberta Press, 2008.