They Would Not Take Me There: People, Places and Stories from Champlain's travels in Canada, 1603-1616

Review of They Would Not Take Me There: People, Places and Stories from Champlain's travels in Canada, 1603-1616

Map by Michael James Hermann & Margaret Wickens Pearce

Review by Daniel Huffman, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Review of They Would Not Take Me There: People, Places and Stories from Champlain's travels in Canada, 1603-1616

Description:

In They Would Not Take Me There, Margaret Pearce and Mike Hermann set out to tell the story of Samuel de Champlain’s journeys in New France in the early seventeenth century. At first glance, their work appears deceptively simple. Champlain’s route is drawn on a very plain base map of the St. Lawrence River and the eastern edge of the Great Lakes. Spilling into the otherwise empty expanse of land south of the river are five panels, each consisting of a series of relatively simple inset maps which carry us through episodes from Champlain’s journals (Figure 1). There are no clever multivariate symbols. There are no trendy design embellishments. There is little more than land, water, and text. It would be a mistake, however, to assume it is cartographically unremarkable simply because of its plain appearance.

Within that simple framework the authors have created a work that is as deep and engaging as it is unassuming in appearance. This is not merely a catalogue of the path of Champlain’s travels overlaid onto some local hydrography and annotated with a few quotations from his writings. Here, Champlain’s words are the star. The text is supported and enhanced by the spatial representation, not the other way around. In reading They Would Not Take Me There, we are reading Champlain’s journals, arranged not linearly, but instead embedded in their spatial context. When Champlain says that he “never saw any torrent of water pour over with such force as this”, we see his words define the location of the very torrent he’s describing (Figure 2). The authors seek to give Champlain a voice, and this they do quite well. We can hear him narrate his experiences as we look on, and his words point to the geographies that he lived just as clearly as would his finger if he were present.

Figure 1. Map Overview.

Figure 1. Map Overview.

Champlain’s is not the only voice on the map; the imagined voices of the native peoples of his New France are heard as well, set in a separate color of type. They compete for the chance to interpret events, while observing and commenting on his actions. Their toponyms sit beside his. The map’s authors, too, get in on the act, using their own notes to fill in details and describe events from an outsider’s perspective. This is not a sterile map of the physical landscape; it is populated and alive. It is a work of very human cartography.

Figure 2. Torrents inset.

Figure 2. Torrents inset.

In the inset map sequences we find specific episodes from Champlain’s travels. As the authors move through each small map in the series, they carefully shift location, scale, and color palette to influence the reader’s understanding of the story being told. The darkness of death, the red of blood, the loneliness of a small island amidst the water—all of these play quietly upon our feelings, reinforcing the tone of Champlain’s words. The map engages us at an emotional level; something critical for effective storytelling (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Drowning insets.

Figure 3. Drowning insets.

Engaging though its narrative is, the map does a poor job visually advertising its wealth. The creative use of voices will interest readers, but only if the lack of an immediate aesthetic appeal does not keep them from coming close enough to look. The cold white hydrography on the base map is empty and uninviting, and there are vast stretches of flat, uniform tan land. It seems like the only purpose of either is to show that it is not the other: the tan polygons are simply there to mark not-water, and the white layer looks like it only indicates places where there is no land. Neither has its own positive identity, and this can serve as a barrier to engaging with the narrative so carefully crafted in the typography. The actors’ words mean more when we can look at the map and see them talking about a landscape, not canoeing atop a polygon. The uniform emptiness could be a useful device to illustrate the great stretches of New France which were unknown to Europeans at the time, but there is no visual contrast drawn between the places Champlain knew of or experienced, and the places he did not. His words fit on the St. Lawrence about as well as they fit in Michigan. As a final note on the overall aesthetics, the thin, semi-matte coated stock on which the map is printed feels at odds with the subject matter. Its lack of weight and its plastic feel does not mesh with the historical drama which unfolds on its surface.

While the panels of inset maps are more attractively done, they are poorly integrated with the base map. Their richer color palette makes the main map look dull in comparison, and contributes to a sense that they belong on another page altogether. They are meant to show events taking place at a small location marked on the base map, but they necessarily move far away from that location as the story unfolds, making it difficult to maintain a sense of context and thus weakening their connection to those spaces.

These weaknesses are not fatal; while they can introduce static into the transmission of Champlain’s voice, enough comes through to make for a rewarding experience. They Would Not Take Me There is a valuable contribution and a worthy addition to anyone’s library. It is a map for human beings, about human beings, in a way that too few are, and gives voice to those living in the geography represented. The reader is drawn emotionally into the story through its creative typography and the thoughtful use of color and scale in the inset maps. They Would Not Take Me There is worthy of imitation and will hopefully serve as a source of inspiration to others.

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