Book Review – Even the Owl Is Not Heard

Book Review – Even the Owl Is Not Heard

Even the Owl Is Not Heard , a review by John Spychka

Barbara Verity, Editor
Gilles Péloquin, Editor
Introduction by Monique Nadeau-Saumier Illustrations by Denis Palmer
Published by Townships Cantons Publications, 2011

On David Thompson’s (1770-1857) memorial in the Mount Royal Cemetery in Montreal, the epitaph reads, “To the memory of the greatest of Canadian geographers who for 34 years explored & mapped the main travel routes between the St. Lawrence & the Pacific.” Deserved, high praise indeed for an explorer and adventurer who spent his life charting and surveying the lands of Canada and northwestern United States.

Even the Owl Is Not Heard is a transcription of David Thompson’s journals as he explored the Eastern Townships in 1834 while working for the British American Land Company (BALC). The two journals transcribed are: A Journal of 1834 from May 1 to July 12, 1834 being of the Eastern Townships and Vol 33 David Thompson. A Journal from Septr 20 to Nov 17th 1834. Eastern Townships. No 72 from the Archives of Ontario. Unfortunately, the editors report that the journals from July 13 to September 19 are not in the Archives of Ontario and could not be found.

The May 1 to July 12 journal chronicles Thompson’s daily adventures as he explored the region in the Eastern Townships known as the St. Francis Tract. The editors note that “The St. Francis Tract lay in a region of rugged, isolated, and unsurveyed townships lying mainly east of the St. Francis River, along the Salmon River and over to Lake Megantic and the State of Main.”

The September 20 to November 17 journal documents Thompson “while on the St. Francis River for four days and in Sherbrooke for the rest of the time.” At this time, Thompson surveyed and established boundaries in a good part of the then sparse village of Sherbrooke.

Both journals are very detailed and give an account of each day’s adventures. Apart from surveying, Thompson was especially interested in the quality and type of soil in the townships in the St. Francis Tract. This information was important to the BALC since they had purchased the land with the intent of reselling it.

One gets a sense from reading this book how very difficult conditions were in 1834. Thompson almost always mentions the daily weather, which was very poor more often than not. It seems that 1834 was an inclement summer in the Eastern Townships, with late snow in the spring and early snow in the fall, rain often heavy, and cool temperatures.

Apart from the weather, Thompson and his team suffered many hardships. They were threatened with starvation; at one point, they had to send a party to the Beauce region to find food. Also, they were constantly mending their clothing and drying their clothing and supplies after the rain. When the weather was nice, they were “…pestered by Musketoes and Sand Flies.” Plus, they had to battle fatigue and sickness. As mentioned in the book, Thompson was lucky to have never lost a man on any of his expeditions.

Thompson obviously did not travel alone. He had assistants to whom he paid a wage. His assistants in the Eastern Townships were his son, Henry, three Indians, and possibly two woodsmen. Others joined and left throughout the expedition. The Indians were probably of the Abenaki tribe and played an important role as guides. Without their local knowledge and survival skills, one wonders if Thompson would have surveyed as much as he did or even if he would have survived.

The editors of Even the Owl Is Not Heard, Barbara Verity and Gilles Péloquin, are quite familiar with Thompson’s exploits because, in 2006, they literally followed Thompson’s route in the West with the help of Joyce and Peter McCart’s book, On the Road with David Thompson. This book traces Thompson’s path from Rocky Mountain House, Alberta down through the Rockies to the Pacific coast via Washington State in the early 1800s. When Verity and Péloquin discovered that Thompson had also surveyed and charted parts of the Eastern Townships, they decided to take to the road again and follow Thompson’s 1834 path through their homeland (they live in Hatley, Quebec).

Verity and Péloquin’s work in transcribing Thompson’s journals deserves particular mention. They worked with microfiche and had to decipher Thompson’s handwriting, which proved challenging at times given he usually wrote outdoors in all sorts of conditions. The editors also researched the surveying terms used at the time.

Even the Owl Is Not Heard is well-researched with plenty of footnotes and a detailed bibliography. The book is a valuable resource and a must for anyone interested in the building of Canada, David Thompson’s explorations, or a detailed perspective of an adventurer exploring wild, uncharted lands.

Categories: News, Quebec Literature

About Author

John Spychka

John Spychka has dabbled in writing since the early ’90s. His closest claim to fame came around 2006 when his work, “The Slava Ladies League Christmas Pyrogy Fiasco,” was shortlisted for the annual Writers’ Union of Canada’s Short Prose Competition. He earned his Bachelor’s degree in English Literature at the University of Calgary and also has a Master’s in English Literature from Université Laval. He has travelled extensively, having lived in Japan and France. John is a manager in a multi-national software company and dreams to one day be able to live off his writing. He lives in Quebec City with his wife and two children.