Every Canadian history teacher should share a copy of Matt James’ Northwest Passage with their class. An interpretation of the Canadian ballad of the same name, Northwest Passage is a history picture book, written for kids, but meant for everyone.
A polyphonic scrapbook, James combines Stan Rogers’ exceptional lyrics with a myriad of visuals to accentuate the ferocity of Canada’s northern landscape, and to juxtapose the profound knowledge of the Inuit with the eager and underprepared ideals of the European settlers who would seek to conquer it.
From the first splash page, a swirling vortex of history behind James, the author and interpretive protagonist of the tale, the reader is submitting to a voyage back in time where they can bare witness to the beauty and horrors of the Canadian North.
Most striking is James’ perception of the power of nature. Each time the chorus of the song is repeated, a painting of the barren landscape captivates the reader, whose eye is drawn to the single animal in the frame, larger than any human or human technology sharing the page. This is a testament to the power of nature, but it is also a critique of the overzealous and egoist nature of man who were subdued by the very land they sought to conquer.
Another point of profound artistry is the present day paintings where James is the central figure. Each is presented from an almost childlike point of view, eager and blossoming, yet underdeveloped. However, closer inspection reminds the reader that everyone, in their search for meaning, has a land to cross and adventure to endure. As Stan Rogers contemplated the voyage of past explorers, James contemplates the passage we all cross. The constant presence of mirrors on these pages remind us, also, that the past is never far behind.
The inclusion of song lyrics, historical timelines, explorer biographies, scientific achievements, maps, and photographs, which counter the more artistic representations, are what make this book so engaging. Northwest Passage is less of a song book and more of an anthology of Canada’s North set to Stan Rogers’ rhythm and meter.
Every Canadian history teacher should include this book in their lesson plans, but every teacher in Canada should have this book on their shelves.
By Leigha Chiasson-Locke