Island of Blue Fox in the running for Canada's prestigious literary prize
Island of Blue Foxes makes 2018 shortlist for RBC Taylor Prize
By KJ Mullins
Canadian Author Stephen R. Bown sees and writes about dead people. Long deceased explorers to be precise. Bown is fascinated by brave men who are knowingly sailed out of their comfort field as they explore the unseen world of two centuries ago.
Communing the dead has been good for Bown. His latest nonfiction book 'Island of the Blue Foxes: Disaster and Triumph of the World's Greatest Scientific Expedition' is receiving rave reviews across Canada and was recently shortlisted for this year’s RBC Taylor Prize.
Don’t let the title fool you. While blue foxes do have a place in Bown’s book, it is really about the failure of Danish mapmaker Vitus Jonassen Bering to overcome the harsh climate of what is now the Bering Straits, and the bungling of the Russian government who commissioned him to sail from Russia to North America. Bering did reach what is now Alaska but was shipwrecked for almost a year on his return to Russia. Bering and many of his crew died and was buried on an island (now called Bering Island) near the Kamchatka Peninsula.
Bown is a devoted writer who is constantly working on his next book. He explores his small town of Canmore in the Canadian Rockies on his mountain bike while structuring his work internally. Those rides with very dramatic scenery all around him leads Bown to question what's beyond the next bend in the mounting trail. Pedalling along a deserted forest path he often reflects on what it is like to be exposed to the elements and what an explorer like Bering from the past may have thought about when faced with nature’s adversities. Bown’s pedalling meditations result in a number of great literary non-fiction titles written from a very human perspective.
Bown spoke about his nominated book and his writing process during a recent phone interview recently saying that he “has a passion for writing about the adventure of past explorations! I keep my eye on the social dynamics and the human predicament when you remove people from their safe harbours the comfort of their warm happy homes.”
Bown’s latest book is not urban story. Rather the story doesn’t kick in until Bering’s two grand arctic adventures begin. Bown explores the psychological mindset of people willing to sail into the great unknown s as they venture onward and away from a structured and protected existence.
Bown said, “I am interested in the psychological mindset of how these men acted when they were away from social norms, cut-off from anyone else, all alone aforced to solve the problems that arise or die trying,” Bown likens this to young adult fiction where the parents are often to removed from the plotline, “Once the ship leaves port it is very much like a kid without Mom and Dad. You have to strip it back and look at people as individuals and what makes them tick.”
Georg Wilhelm Steller is name you will never forget after reading Blue Foxes. It is 1740 and he is the physician aboard St Peter, Bering's wooden sailing ship. During the voyage through the near freezing waters of the most northern reaches of the Pacific Ocean Steller was considered a boorish know nothing by the Russian crew. But when the ship was grounded onto the rocky shores of Bering Island the doctor rose to the challenge and became a savour and hero.
Steller understood that in order to survive he and the others had to set aside the social hierarchy of the day and pull together to overcome the physical challenges of the Arctic. Regardless of rank the survivors worked together to stay warm, find food and escape the barren frozen island. For almost a year they braved the elements, diseases and pesky feral blue foxes. Once the crew was able to sail from the island the social hierarchy returned very quickly.
Bown's ability to delve into the historic accounts of the key men from the Bering mission forms a captivating book that reads more like fiction than a history lesson. The reader is able to understand how men like Bering and Steller were driven to do what they did. The author's curious nature to get to the root of the men in this story results in a telling that includes both the thoughts and deeds of the men.
Considering the focus of Bown's 10 books are about the daring dos of adventurous men I asked him if he would have wanted to have been an explorer had he lived during that time. Laughing Bown said that he doesn't think he would have signed on to go on a voyage to the Arctic in the 18th century himself just as he wouldn't sign on to explore Mars today.
While he loves exploring the hows and whys of these great adventures he is not into taking on extreme adventures himself. Instead, as a man who loves reading the personal accounts of these men he much prefer to be a Dr Watson rather than a death defying Sherlock! That said he does admit that for the average sailor from Siberia who made up the crew on the St. Peter the voyage wasn't really about going on an adventure. “It was more about having a job that had the promise of an easier life with plenty of food rather than a leap of faith into the unknown.”
Bown is now exploring several ideas for his next book. He has yet to pin down exactly where he will be taking us but rest assured it will be an adventure that will have his world readers quickly turning the pages to find out about history with relish.
The RBC Taylor Prize winner will be revealed at a gala luncheon on Monday February 26, 2018 at the downtown Toronto Omni King Edward Hotel.