Book review: Arctic Twilight
Although letter writing may be a disappearing art, this book resonates with the magnificence of storytelling by a gifted correspondent. Leonard Budgell wrote hundreds of letters describing the events and people he encountered over his career working as manager of Hudson’s Bay trading posts, and in all of them are his deep respect and love for the land and people of the North. These letters have been collected and edited into Arctic Twilight: Leonard Budgell and Canada's Changing North (Dundurn Press, $39.95) by Claudia (Brown) Coutu Radmore, BFA’84, who received close to 4,000 pages of his correspondence between 1981 and 1992.
Claudia met Leonard Budgell in Winnipeg in 1979, and their long-term friendship began. At the time, Len was still employed by the Hudson’s Bay Company and, as Claudia describes, “too close to retirement for his liking.” Two years later, when she moved back to Kingston to pursue a Fine Arts degree at Queen’s, the letters began to arrive “written on yellow foolscap and in sets of anywhere from ten to seventy-seven pages.” The letters included family happenings and comments on current events, but also accounts of people he met in the North, encounters with animals, and adventures aboard ships. These stories “begged to be shared” with a wider audience, and motivated Claudia to edit the letters into a collection. She received the support of Len and his family, although the book was published after he died. Professor Frits Pannekoek, President of Athabasca University, has called Len’s letters “one of the greatest legacies anyone could have left Canada and its people.”
Leonard Budgell was born in 1917 and grew up in Rigolet, Labrador, although his family can trace their roots in Newfoundland back to the late 1800s. At 18, he began to work as a “servant of the Bay,” and over his career took up postings in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Ontario, with several of them in the Arctic. Len’s ability to remember and tell a story is exceptional. He wrote these words about a dying Naskapi man who was brought by canoe from inland to the coast of Labrador, waiting both for a priest and to see the sunrise: “In that direct light the wrinkles and clefts were a written memorial of a life, a long life, lived under hard, and at times, impossible conditions. But the ravaged features had only dignity, even a sort of gladness.” This book is a written memorial of a different kind, also filled with dignity and gladness.
In a 2013 Globe and Mail recommendation, the Newfoundland author Michael Crummey called Arctic Twilight “the best book about the North I’ve ever read.” This is an expansive book by any measure, and sure to reward readers.