The freedom of trousers

The Expedition

By William Brown

A review of The Expedition by Clayton Bailey

Published on April 1, 2004

The Expedition
Clayton Bailey

Great Plains Publishing
$19.95
paper
248pp
1-894283-40-6

Robertson Davies’ Murther & Walking Spirits features a character called the Sniffer, a pompous small-town theatre critic who always “sniffs” the influence of a more famous writer when reviewing the work of a Canadian playwright. He believes these influences show a lack of originality. But the Sniffer is not taken very seriously. The local press club twice nominates him for Asshole of the Year.

What the Sniffer didn’t understand was that familiar literary themes could be explored in original ways. The Expedition has a familiar theme – a dangerous journey that results in personal discovery – but there is certainly no lack of originality. For one thing, the inner discoveries are about gender and creativity, unconventional themes for an adventure story set in 1858.

The main character, Joanna Reid, is a 24-year-old photographer raised in genteel circumstances. Stifled by the limited role of women in her society, she moves to a wild frontier town in a burgeoning nation, presumably Canada (no place names are used). She takes a further walk on the wild side by disguising herself as a man in order to become the town photographer.

Reid is thrilled to have the freedom of a man, and to experiment with the fledgling art and science of photography. The job, however, is a bore. She misses “the energy of obsession.” Reid vows to devote herself to the quest of beauty by photographing the wild landscapes around her. But the opportunities are limited. “Discontent builds in me, will soon boil and bubble over,” she says. “I can feel that uncontrollable desire, learned from my father, to offend.” At the risk of sounding like the Sniffer, the sentiment is reminiscent of Ishmael in Moby-Dick, who knew it was time to head to sea when it took great effort to refrain from “deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off…”

Salvation comes when Reid is invited to join a survey expedition mapping the route for a transcontinental railway. “I enjoy the freedom my trousers give me, but I pay a price,” she observes. She misses the companionship of other women, and the freedom to express herself sexually. But she is willing to make that sacrifice for the chance to capture beauty with her camera. As the gruelling, deadly journey unfolds, she discovers things about herself – the woman and the artist.

Reid is attracted by the inner force and vitality of the team leader, Captain Aaron Masse, but is repelled by his ability to act with cold dispatch. She writes him off as an uncomplicated brute until she discovers that he wasn’t fooled by her disguise and had actually fallen in love with her. Masse, a retired soldier, also learns something about himself on the voyage: “To what extent was I disguised in my uniform…how much did I hide within it?” Much of the story is told through the captain’s journals, which reveal wisdom and sensitivity, qualities he keeps hidden from the others on the expedition.

Bailey is a creative storyteller. In addition to the captain’s journals and Reid’s narrative, there are connecting passages that provide photographic images of the natural surroundings. Even the wild creatures – a bear in its winter den, and a doe drinking at a riverbank – give brief impressions of the humans passing through. The book itself is designed to look like a cracked leather journal that was stuffed into a saddlebag, and maybe even rescued from a campfire. The journal image suits the story, which deals as much with inner thoughts and explorations as it does with the physical journey of the expedition.

mRb
William Brown is author of the Doug Harvey biography "Doug".

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