Kildare Dobbs, himself a widely travelled journalist and man of letters, has compiled one of the first samplers of Canadian travel writing, Away From Home. But few of its entries succeed in the basic function of good travel writing: evoking a strong sense of place. While he has cast his anthologist’s net widely—the 27 selections range from travelogues to fiction and excerpts from diaries—the book is of only moderate interest. Missing are the observations of such gifted Canadian writers as Margaret Laurence, who spent two years in Somaliland, or Pierre Trudeau on the Central Asian hiking trip which he made as a young man and detailed in Two Innocents in Red China, or, indeed, anything by a French-Canadian. Instead, Dobbs has offered a smorgasbord whose flavors rarely rise above the bland.
One of the few successful elements in Away From Home is Dobbs’s juxtaposition of excerpts from Morley Callaghan’s That Summer in Paris with John Glassco’s Memoirs of Montparnasse. Comparing the two, the reader discovers more about the personalities of the two authors—the brawling Callaghan and the sensual Glassco—than about Paris itself. The book also introduces some intriguing Canadians, including one who actually chose to leave Canada’s frozen wastes to travel through Russia’s: Sir George Simpson, a governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company, did so in 1841, possibly because his company had trading interests in the then-Russian territory of Alaska. The only relief in Simpson’s rather turgid prose is his sharp eye for pretty women.
Among the best pieces Dobbs has found are a lyrical memoir from Toronto-born poet Gwendolyn MacEwan of life on the Greek islands, Winnipeg-born travel writer Gary Marchant on the carnival atmosphere of Rio de Janeiro and Vancouver poet Jim Christy on Greenland, where he saw one young woman perform a striptease in a bar and then anoint herself with the local beer. Still, the book offers too few enticing pieces. If, for travellers, the road goes on forever, it should be remembered that readers have less patience.
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