Originally published in the 1950s, Northern Trader: The Last Days of the Fur Trade by H.S.M. Kemp is a memoir that begins in 1908 with Harold Kemp in his teens making the trip to Lac La Ronge to ask for a job with the Hudson Bay Company. With romantic thoughts in his mind about what it might be like to be a “company man,” he encountered frozen lakes that made canoe travel out of the question, necessitating a hard suffering walking trip. Unaccustomed to moccasins and snowshoes, under advisement of his native guide, he rubbed bacon grease on his feet every night, and finally reverted back to his patent leather shoes in favor of their hard soles. To travel the northern elements, with cracked feet, in search of a job seems surprising, but that’s how Kemp did it.
Northern Trader is written in a very accessible style by a white Prince Albert man originally from England. Through his stories the reader learns that he is no ordinary “company man” in that he prefers to share the load, adapt to the customs of northern culture, socialize with natives, and speak the Cree language, which he writes rather poetically about. The tone of the book is conversational, likely cultivated by exchanging stories verbally with those who came to the trading post or passed along the way. Each chapter is made up of many stories about individuals, and filled with travel accounts by canoe or dog team, which were easy or difficult based on the whimsy of the weather. An active and forward thinking man, he often made trips to bring supplies to the trappers and pick up their furs as opposed to waiting at the post.
The voice of the book is earnest. Kemp tries to be fair by including stories that show not only the positive but also negative, albeit usually humorous, aspects of character. I suspect that he witnessed some level of domestic atrocity during his sixteen years (off and on) in the north, but in keeping with the attitude of the fifties, he does not expound upon the more sordid family, school, or religion-based details. It is important to keep in mind the potentially idealized viewpoint of the writer, the time period in which the book was originally authored, and Kemp’s particular generous outlook. As always, any memoir is but a version of the truth, and this is a beautiful version.
Kemp and his wife became so close with the people of Stanley, where Kemp manned the Revillon trading post, the French competition of HBC that Kemp’s account of their visit after twenty years away brought tears to my eyes. I became so thoroughly engrossed in this book, that it nearly hurt to put it down when I reached the end. This book is that good. Kemp’s version of the tough, challenging nature of northern life during that time is compassionate, and like the back cover states, romantic.
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