this is not a review — ‘boundless’, by kathleen winter


I have a thing for North. I suppose this is very Canadian. Or maybe it’s just me and Glenn Gould. We who have this tendency of leaning northward are secret admirers of storms and falling temperatures; we wear a certain pride in the misery of it all and envy provinces whose kitchens smell of snow cakes on days when they’re unable to open their back doors. Mine is not a land of nail-biting where cold weather is concerned, but rather, the idea of North beckons with a kind of curious wonder at just how Canadian are we… How much North have we seen? How much can we take?

And so it was with great anticipation that I opened Boundless, Kathleen 9781770893993_1024x1024Winter’s account of finding herself in the North. (Double entendre intended.) Not only does she find herself there when, on something close to a whim, she accepts an invitation to participate in a voyage through the Northwest Passage but, in the course of things, she finds bits of herself in the landscape of icebergs and tundra as well as in memories of an English childhood, travels through Europe, arrival in Canada via Newfoundland where she lived for many years, and then to Montreal, the city she now calls home.

While home feels like something of a theme, Winter confides that a sense of belonging to this place or that, has always eluded her. Maybe this is why she’s so good at noticing the details that make a life.

Part of the book’s magic is how she weaves recollections of fresh English cream with food banks and cockroach ‘vendettas’, third floor flats and hundred year old lilacs grazing windows; with British rain vs Newfoundland rain, Vita Sackville West’s white garden, Mexican itinerants and whistling boys in Corner Brook; with ‘marmalados’ and fig trees in Montreal, fish markets in Greenland, junk food and wild food in Pond Inlet; with the purchase of a handmade doll… and the sight of a polar bear that changes everything.

Among the passengers on this voyage is Nathan Rogers, son of Stan Rogers. His father’s song, and the phrase, ‘tracing one warm line’, is a powerful soundtrack that fades in and out of the reading. In fact, sound may be another theme. The absence of it as Winter explores the land—“I’d been given the key to enter, to lie down and listen, to breathe its exhalations and hear it speak…” —and then the shock of its re-appearance when the PA system announces a tour to see a rock formation or go in search of whales or birds. Winter ignores each call, prefers to let the land show her what’s hers to see. “… if a narwhal or other astonishing creature wanted to reveal something to me, it would do so when we were both ready.”

It occurs to her there is a need to “understand…mind and body in a new way.” And how to receive, to become more tree-like.

“Somehow everything I’d learned about life pointed to an idea that to receive something you had to earn it. I’d never thought of myself as a tree, a graceful being visited by songbird, starlight, and rain, and which people love for itself, not for what it does or how smart it is, or how indispensable. I was used to making myself indispensable in one arena or another…”

The narrative moves forward, backward and sideways through time, like shifting ice, memory bumping up against the present and creating yet another dimension (in one instance, as the ship is forced to take an alternate route, Winter first considers Wynken, Blynken and Nod sailing off in their wooden shoe, then ties this in with past explorers who “might have spied a whole gleaming mountain range that didn’t exist…”).

Some of my favourite passages reflect on the happy discovery of muskox fur caught among the vegetation, which she gathers with reverence for weaving into various projects. This parallel of wool and weaving feels like a turning point as she tells us she comes “…from a long line of sheep stealers,” and we sense her pride, this instinct she has inherited to collect, connect, create.
A sense of belonging emerges…

“I wove another muskox tuft into my work and felt excited that tomorrow, when we landed at Paisley Bay, I could search the terrain for more fragments of that one warm line.”

It’s a strangely wild yet contemplative ride she takes us on as the landscape and the people slowly work themselves into her psyche. She tells us that, initially, she couldn’t find the words to describe the experience, and that only two years later, after looking at her own sketches, was she able to begin writing the book.

“I was finding, in the North, that words are secondary language: first we see images, then we feel heat, cold rock, flesh. We taste air before words.”

In some ways it feels a very private account, musings and observations as if written for self, as if the author might lift her head at any moment and be surprised to see us there reading.

Ultimately though, Boundless is about discovery. Of history, land, self, of connection to others, of hearing and seeing in new ways, and of questioning what actually matters. It’s about the power and beauty of North. Not exactly a book about  the North… but more because of it.

Boundless   is available on-line at Blue Heron Books. Support indies!


11 thoughts on “this is not a review — ‘boundless’, by kathleen winter

  1. I’m so intrigued by this book – thank you for pointing me in its direction.

    Fellow lover of the north, who is currently somewhat out of sync in the south, Leslie

    1. I do hope synchronization soon returns! (Am assuming your reference to ‘south’ is by comparison to ‘way north’?) (:

      Just curious. Where, exactly does south begin? North of 60?

      1. For us it begins at Prince George, which lies on the 54th parallel. Ours is a tamer sort of north, but our criterion is population density more than anything geographic. :)

  2. Your review has made me want to go out and get this book right now and read it: you write about it so beautifully, so evocatively. But it’s midnight and a blizzard is starting up which is forecast to last for two days so I’ll have to wait that out. My only experience of the North is Labrador, where things are often postponed because “the weather’s down”, and it’s definitely going “down” here in St. John’s. I have to say one thing about the song Northwest Passage, though. Coincidentally, we listened to it in my class this evening, as an example of how Indigenous peoples’ experiences are so often erased in Canadian cultural texts. (I feel like a traitor to Stan for saying this; I love his music, and love this song in a way, but that’s what makes it so insidious too.) That “one warm line through a land both wild and savage” is the line made by the European explorer, isn’t it? But the land has been criss-crossed by warm lines made by Indigenous people for millennia. At least, that is my reading of it. What do you think? Curious also to see what Kathleen thinks, and looking forward to reading.

    1. Oh, you’ll enjoy the book, Elizabeth. The reference to “one warm line” is much broader in the reading and takes on many aspects, layers and incarnations. It was, I think, those very “lines” made by indigenous people… and the animals who also live there… that touched her deeply. I’ll be curious to hear your thoughts once you’ve surfaced again! Dare I say happy shovelling?? (;

      1. Yes, I was thinking about the animals as well but didn’t want to be too polemical on too many fronts all at once. Looking forward to reading, and to discussing with you. And, re shovelling, there is a mind-boggling mountain of snow outside my front door right now but when I opened the door a blast of blizzard struck me and turned me into an instant snow woman before I even stepped outside so I decided that the mountain can stay there until tomorrow.

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