Review: The Elusive Mr Pond, Barry Gough

Biographies, History

Rating: 2 out of 5

Oh Peter, Oh Peter Pond, what a figure you are… Mr Gough’s work makes you sound like a misunderstood choir boy who never meant anyone any harm while the entire rest of the world was out to get you — while another book that covered some of your exploits noted you as the voyageur dangereux, whose companions and associates suffered accidents perhaps a bit too often. 

In the end, what this book sounds like is that the author has a bit of a grudge against Alexander Mackenzie being considered the most skilled explorer so at every possible moment where one can contrast the two giants, we hear how good of a character Mr Pond was and that Mackenzie — really wasn’t — and more than that, whatever Mr Mackenzie may have known, it would have originally come from the voyageur Pond. The one time in the book where Mackenzie is actually praised for his qualities looks forced and unwilling, perhaps added by the editor to make the book look more equitable.

Mr Pond, at the same time, comes across as a misunderstood figure in the Canadian wilderness who had to best the Montreal traders, the Hudson Bay Company as well as the wrongly put-forward murder accusations. Mr Gough also states in the book that while Mr Pond probably actually killed someone, then maybe he really didn’t mean it, and perhaps we should remember that the times were different, and “Overall, it is likely that he was provoked”. These excuses also lambast the court proceedings which followed, because of course these should not have done so as really the Upper Canadian courts had no jurisdiction in the wilderness. The second murder that normally gets thrown at Mr Pond’s door is glossed over with a sad note that even though it may have been committed by the book’s hero, it was not what he really meant to do.

The other problem (though do I need another one?) that this book presents is the author’s tendency to imagine things. I am fine with that in a work of fiction, but as long as this one presents itself as a history, that approach should have been stepped down in favour of what we know — and if we don’t know something, that could easily have been stated instead of embarking upon a five-page examination of “this may have been, and in all probability…”. In some places the author’s tendency to be creative easily already turns this into a work of historical fiction rather than the narrative history Mr Gough thought he was writing — and while making this change official would not have detracted from the subject matter, the book currently remains in the middle of the two worlds, not really joining either. I also think that from the author’s viewpoint, a POV story of Mr Pond would have carried a lot better in explaining the person’s motives.

Lastly, to not only be negative, I have to say that a history of Mr Pond being accessible is a step forward in its own right — I searched for a number of the voyageurs and this was not the case for the majority of them. Hence, I would still recommend this work such that the trying time of the people who “opened” the Canadian Northwest would be better known, but I would also ask the reader to keep an open mind about the other figures mentioned within this work.