Brian Castner’s Disappointment River: Finding and Losing the Northwest Passage, a mixed history and travel memoir, goes a long way toward correcting the record of discovery in North America ... Discovering history, and not just new landscapes around the next bend in the river, is one of the delights of Disappointment River. And, during a time when so many American descendants of foreign extraction rail against immigration, it’s useful to recall that all of us originated in a diaspora.
He’s a compelling writer with a fluid style that mirrors the smooth passages of his canoe through the Mackenzie. The author’s friendliness and tolerant approach to Canada’s native population gives readers a clear picture of the difficult life in the Northwest Territories. Castner also presents a grim picture of the effects of climate change on the far north. He encountered no ice as he paddled into the Arctic. Disappointment River is an adventure tale that will keep you happily reading while safely in your armchair.
In Disappointment River Castner alternates an account of [river explorer] Mackenzie’s voyage with a chronicle of his own repeat in the summer of 2016 ... Castner is an uneven writer whose ultra-compressed sentences can leave the reader scratching his head ... At his best, however, Castner has the Conradian ability to make you see and feel ... Disappointment River abounds in vivid details.
Separated by 227 years, two men paddled up the longest river in Canada, one in search of the elusive Northwest Passage, the other wondering why he had never heard of that man’s earlier journey ... Their stories are skillfully intertwined in Castner’s thoroughly intriguing and enlightening Disappointment River ... For anyone concerned with the global effects of climate change, the meaning behind Disappointment River becomes alarmingly clear.
Castner (All the Ways We Kill and Die, 2016) set out to replicate [river explorer] Mackenzie’s journey, which he ably recounts ... Appealing on both historical and contemporary levels, Castner’s work will please readers fascinated by tales of discovery.
Castner interweaves Mackenzie’s chronicle with his own travelogue, making for a brisk read and a thoughtful meditation on adventure, discovery, and ultimately failure ... the book is not without a certain power. The journey itself is the reward: it is the ultimate adventure cliché, but it happens to be true.
Castner handles its several components skillfully, covering all the bases: for one, he provides a lively biography of Mackenzie, the youngest principal in the Northwest Company, contending not just with the rigors of exploration, but also with early corporate politics. For another, he covers the territory, traveling in what he conjectures to be Mackenzie’s footsteps ... A vital addition to the library of the far north and of exploration.
The author’s own reasons for embracing such intense physical misery remain unclear, and the themes of global warming and Native American resilience are left underdeveloped. Nevertheless, Castner is an engaged narrator and writes from a visceral connection to the natural world, describing insect swarms and whitewater spills. Historians and armchair travelers alike will be equally pleased with this volume.