________________ CM . . . . Volume VII Number 14 . . . . March 16, 2001

cover George Mercer Dawson: Geologist, Scientist, Explorer. (The Quest Library, 8).

William Chalmers.
Montreal, PQ: XYZ Publishing, 2000.
178 pp., pbk., $15.95.
ISBN 0-9683601-8-1.

Subject Headings:

Grades 9 - 12 / Ages 14 - 17.

Review by Alexander Gregor.

**** /4

George Dawson's death was widely mourned. Tributes and eulogies appeared in newspapers and scientific journals in Canada, the U.S., and England, all filled with the highest of praise. Perhaps the most telling praise, though, came from the men he had worked alongside in Canada's northwest. As one friend wrote: "It was at night round the camp fires that he opened up, it was a treat to listen to him." Another wrote in B.C.'s Mining Journal:


His readiness to share all work, and laugh at every hardship, was the reason for his extraordinary popularity with the Indians, who are not generally eloquent in their praise of white men. I have it from the lips of Indians, that the Doctor was not only "Skookum", but had a "Skookum Tumtum"; to translate, "Was not only a strong enduring man, but a cheery, brave man, ready to endure all things and suffer all things, saying nothing, or making a merry jest of what some travelers might call dangerous hardships." (p. 143)

Another volume in the excellent biography series published by XYZ Publishing, George Mercer Dawson traces the life of one of Canada's great pioneering scientists. George Dawson, born in 1849 in Pictou, Nova Scotia, and subsequently raised and educated in Montreal (McGill University) and Great Britain (London School of Mines), was considered to be the finest field scientist of his time in Canada. He began working in 1873 with the North American Boundary Commission which was surveying and studying the 49th parallel, from the Lake of the Woods to the Rockies. Two years later, he was appointed to the Geological Survey of Canada, of which he was Director at the point of his premature death in 1901. The eulogies delivered at that time like the one quoted above did not mention the significant physical disability that followed on an early bout of Poll's Disease - a TB of the spine - that left him twisted and the size of a boy. His determination to overcome this disability in one of the most physically demanding careers imaginable became part of his legend.

      Like the other volumes in the series, this study is written in particularly engaging, almost novel-like fashion. Copious detail is provided of the day-to-day experiences of Dawson's travels and adventures; and this, along with the use of continuous direct dialogue among the characters involved (a dialogue that is in large part manufactured, but nonetheless believable and in character), produces a story that is much more human and immediate than description alone could ever provide.

      Dawson's work coincided with the opening of the Canadian west, and his reports and records are able to portray the country and its people in what was still largely a pre-European form. He had the fortune to see some of the last great buffalo herds and hunts; rivers full of salmon; wildfires on the prairies; and seal packs covering huge stretches of shore. He moved into the west when local tribes were still in combat, and when altercations between Europeans and Aboriginal peoples were not unusual. His own ability to forge close working relationships with the Aboriginal people he encountered allowed him to record their lore, legends and practices with a scientific but empathetic eye. What he learned from them added significantly to the information he was subsequently able to convey about the physical character and natural history of the new country. The same might be said of the close ties he was able to make with the scattered Europeans he encountered in his travels. Miners in British Columbia and traders on the prairies all became part of the information bank he was carefully forging.

      With this story, the reader is left with a sympathetic portrait of a significant contributor to the building of the early nation; with an understanding of the work and contribution both of the Boundaries Commission and the Geological Survey of Canada, each an important institution in that early nation-building; and with a fascinating picture of the country and its people at the point when both were moving from the old ways to the new. In the tradition of the series, the book is effectively illustrated and includes a useful bibliography and comparative time chart outlining the events of Dawson's life and career against major social and political events taking place in Canada and internationally.

      The book will be a valuable supplement to any study of the Canadian west or a delightful reading experience in its own right.

Highly Recommended.

Alexander Gregor is the Associate Dean (Graduate Studies), Faculty of Education, University of Manitoba.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.

Published by
The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364