The Annotated Northwest Passage
Scott Chantler’s historical adventure series is collected into a handsome hardcover volume. It’s only missing a ribbon book marker to take its place in a family library, next to the Jack London books.
Charles Lord, a former hero living out his days managing a frontier fort, takes on a last adventure when a French rogue mercenary captures the incoming supply ship. He’s seeking revenge and some of the immense profit to be made by controlling the fur trade, while Lord’s preparing to retire and return to England. Lord must recapture the fort, defeat the villain, reconcile with his half-breed son, and disenchant his arriving nephew, who doesn’t understand how messy real-life heroics can be. It sounds like a summer blockbuster, but although fictional, the story reflects life in the Canadian wilderness just before the Seven Years War.
As Lord seeks out allies among the native people and other fur traders, a ragged band of survivors copes with the collapse of their society, while prisoners seek escape and mercenaries seek to stay alive and profit regardless of politics. Soldiers, trackers, traders, and invaders are ever more interwoven as various members of the groups split off on their own and share ever more tragic discoveries. This adventure story has all the expected elements — strong men handle life-or-death situations in stunning natural vistas — but behind it is a more subtle exploration of culture clash. Birth, society, and experience all influence a man, but it’s still up to him to build his own character.
Aside from the thrilling action sequences, the deeper themes are those of growing up. Although adulthood happens at different times for various people, the question of when and how to “settle down”, to accept a more complacent life instead of youthful excitement and adrenaline chasing, is one everyone must face. Lord misses the more physical life he’s given up to be a leader and administrator. His struggle is the same as ours, although it takes place in an environment where life and death are more immediate.
Chantler’s art combines the best of a simplified, cartoon-influenced style with historical research. His two previous works, Scandalous and Days Like This, were also set in earlier decades, the 1950s and 60s, but here, he reaches further back to a more rural, macho time. As demonstrated in the opening chase scene, with a band of mercenaries running through a forest after the shaman, his sense of motion and panel-to-panel flow is quite impressive, which helps in building pulse-pumping action. The characters are distinctive in design, with Lord, especially, giving the sense of a once-powerful man facing age and the constraints of civilization. Chantler’s art is beautifully simple in line but immensely complex in what it’s able to convey.
New in this edition are 30 pages of the author’s comments on the work. They provide a useful glimpse into the mind of the artist in illuminating choices he made in plotting, staging, and composition, and for those of us less familiar with the history of Canada circa 1750, they also give background on how this story fits into actual events.
Lord is an old-fashioned hero, a man who does what he believes is right no matter the cost or consequence to himself. With its strong pacing, clear and impressive design, faithful portrayals of all the cultures involved in this battle, and exploration of what it means to be civilized, Northwest Passage is a modern classic.
(A complimentary copy for this review was provided by the publisher. I’m quoted on the back, because I like it that much.)