Boundless: Kathleen Winter takes a cruise

Book reviewing is a mild business in Canada, governed, above all, by courtesy among those doing the reviewing. There are two reasons for this, both stemming from the fact that book reviewers are generally authors who, a) understand how incredibly difficult it is to write anything, let alone do it well, and b) don’t want to see their own work destroyed by negative reviews.

But since a major premise of this convention is that writing is an arduous, painful process, I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say that Kathleen Winter’s account of taking a luxury cruise through the Northwest Passage doesn’t necessarily compel me to follow the convention.


I read this book privately, quietly, and didn’t say a word to anybody about it for some time until a co-worker, who had been sent a review copy, held it up over her desk one afternoon, waved it at me and mouthed the word, “Really?” with a look of mild distaste.

For several weeks, in bits and pieces at an actual water cooler in our office, we had been talking about the dearth of good books about the North. The contemporary North, that is. The one she and I lived in. (This was in Yellowknife, sometime in 2015).

Here, at least, was something, she must have thought, as did I on first picking it up.

So what does this book deliver?

Apart from a scant few insights into the Arctic cruising industry (they employ Inuit interpreters and stack the passenger list with intentionally interesting people to help pass the time), this book is not at all about the North. Mostly, it’s about Kathleen Winter.

Which is all well and good. She’s a fine novelist who won a lot of readers with the bestselling Annabel. She’s also likeable and open-minded and this variety of travel writing, even armchair travel writing, obviously holds some appeal, especially for people who will never visit the places they’re reading about (a two-week cruise like the one Winter took runs $10,000 to $25,000, not including flights).

But there’s nothing of substance in this book. Instead, we get a desperate yearning for meaning and experience that just doesn’t arrive. Quote: “I spent a lot of time with my face close to the ground, listening … to the eloquence of diminutive plants. I found their voices exquisite and brave.”

I sailed part of the Northwest Passage myself once, traveling from Gjoa Haven to Pond Inlet on a 42-foot yacht crewed by a group of Norwegians (long story). We had a great time, read a lot of books, played a lot of cards. The landscape is pretty beautiful and sailing-wise, there were a few technical challenges (chiefly, the fact that there was no wind for the entire five days “under sail”; we ran the engine instead).

What did I learn from this? I like showering. I’m not great at cards. I’m a much better cook when I have the right ingredients. Norwegians are vain but wonderful. The North is an amazing place to be. Oh, but I already knew that last one, because I lived there, in a place where you were allowed to set foot on land without a polar bear monitor following you with a shotgun. A place that anyone can visit anytime, by boarding a flight, staying in a hotel, getting to know some people.

So why am I reviewing this book? I probably shouldn’t be. It’s actually kind of mean-spirited. But since I’ve gone this far, I’ll just sum this up by saying that, whatever this book is (some people enjoyed it; others did not), it will not make my list of great northern reads.

One thought on “Boundless: Kathleen Winter takes a cruise

  1. I can’t say for sure that this review meets the criteria of “book review.” But it certainly matches the experience of having a coffee with Sara Minogue.


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