Across the Tundra by Chris Keenan – review

Crikey, it’s getting hot in here! Before the roasting palate-burningly hot month of April comes to an end, here’s a timely book to freshen up your heart and senses. Chris Keenan’s Across the Tundra:…

Across the Tundra by Chris Keenan – review

Crikey, it’s getting hot in here! Before the roasting palate-burningly hot month of April comes to an end, here’s a timely book to freshen up your heart and senses. Chris Keenan’s Across the Tundra: A Northern Railroad Memoir is a magical-realist journey through 20th-century northern prairie Canada that ought to have you sipping on a pint of Canadian classic beer and dreaming of the days of Bonaparte Street aboard the Canadian Pacific Railroad… because the railway itself is where time stands still!

This wondrous memoir imagines a Red Deer family following a misfired adventure across a frozen Manitoba wasteland to board an ice-bound railway in the 1890s that aims to reach Portland, USA. A year in the life of this unlikeliest of adventures catches us up in extraordinary family drama with a well-trodden catalogue of unforgettable characters, from a Chinese man bought as a train-hand, to a barking jackal, to the prospect of a wildcard twelve-year-old prostitute – and much more.

The book goes on to imagine the journal entries and memories of subsequent generations as we make the journey back to rejoin the railroad in the future (although thanks to modern technology, the structure itself doesn’t go anywhere), first in the mighty south as the railroad’s American dream team trundles north and then back south again before it reaches Portland in 1894.

Wildly imagined but real too, across a northern prairie that is now a borderline desert. Along the way we encounter insects that fly, insects that sing, dream, dream and do many, many more magical things than that. Once again, this book does an amazing job of merging non-fiction with fantastic fantasy. It’s the kind of book that will stay in your mind and heart for weeks after you put it down – so if you’d like to make the journey across Canada with this loving Canadian, get your mouth a little bit moist and head to the nearest Tundra Books. It just might go down like a delicious hot cuppa that turns icy cold with nothing but seconds before it is even ready.

• Read a review of Across the Tundra

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