Drifting Home

I read a book a couple of weeks ago that I really enjoyed on a variety of levels: Drifting Home by Pierre Berton.

Berton is kind of a Canadian icon; he’s written weighty tomes on a variety of Canadian and international issues; he’s written good histories (like Vimy Ridge) on key episodes in Canadian history.

Drifting Home is a totally different book … it’s a book about a trip he took with his family down the Yukon river … hence the ‘drifting’ part of the title. He grew up on the river, and his father was actually a part of the Gold Rush around the turn of the century.

The trip down the river is both a chance for his family to see where he grew up, a chance to revisit places he’s been with his father, a chance to relive those times in some sense, and a chance for the family to get a taste of the man who was their grandfather.

It’s an old book, first published in the late ’70s or early ’80s, but it has a poignancy that touched me … mostly because the book is actually an excuse to write an biography of his father, who died when Berton was quite young, and my father is growing rather old as well.

What is it about the mystique of parenthood? You hold your parents in such esteem when you’re young, totally lose it when you’re a teenager and know so much (!), and regain a good chunk of it when you get older, and come to realize the realities and pressures of life that your parents faced while you were a baby, a child, a teen … and that you were almost completely oblivious of.

There’s also a magic to times past – an aura around times and places and people that once were but now are no more. And yet our memory of them lives on. It’s the sadness you feel when you see ancient black and white pictures of kids, so innocent, so full of promise, so optimistic, so unaware of all the pain and labour ahead, so seemingly untouched by the harsher things in life … and long-since dead.

Berton captures this mystique and this magic, and tells the story with just the right amount of introspection, never wallowing in it, and a nicely-judged series of historical reminisces.

I couldn’t help but think about my relationship with my dad when reading this book: thankful for having a father, appreciative of what he did for me, shamed and regretful that so much went wrong in our relationship – the whole gamut. My father is 71 now, healthy as a horse and still playing ice hockey, but … no longer even remotely middle-aged any more.

I guess reading this book was almost an exercise in pre-grieving, to be really psychological about it. It hit home, and I recommend it to anyone.

One of the saddest parts of the book, however, is a conversation Berton had with his mother, when she tells him that it’s entirely possible that there is no God. Raised nominally Christian, the young Pierre had a tough time with this. The old Pierre, of course, simply thinks this was one of the tough things that one must go through on the road to being a mature, modern, intellectual person.

Reality is, however, that his beloved mother did him an incredible disservice. Unutterably sad!