Books·How I Wrote It

How Adam Shoalts explored Canada's past, one epic map at a time

The professional explorer and author tells CBC Books why he wrote A History Of Canada in Ten Maps.
Adam Shoalts has been called one of Canada's greatest living explorers. (Penguin Random House/Alexia Wiatr)

Adam Shoalts gets around. The historian, archaeologist and geographer has been called one of Canada's greatest living explorers. In 2017, he embarked on a 4,000 kilometre solo journey across Canada's Arctic.

He's the author of A History Of Canada in Ten Maps, a researched look at ancient cartography and archaeology to document how the land we call Canada was shaped.

In his own words, Shoalts tells CBC Books how he wrote A History Of Canada in Ten Maps.

History is awesome

"I wanted to write this book to explode the myth that Canada's history is dull. It's about telling the story of our country in a compelling and exciting way. The notion that Canada's past is boring is a travesty because Canada's early history is anything but. Our history is actually quite a spectacular, sweeping and violent epic saga. It's kind of like Game of Thrones meets early Canadian history."

Adventure and academia

"I just recently wrapped up my graduate research at McMaster University in early Canadian history. I had been doing all this archival reading of various narratives from early Canadian explorers. I wanted the book to be an adventure story, but still be a real scholarly work. The book had to have footnotes and contain a scholarly apparatus. But there's lots of action — including stories of New France and Quebec City founder Samuel de Champlain chopping people's heads off and Canadian explorers getting swept over waterfalls — but it's also a serious research effort with hundreds of primary source citations." 

More than maps

"When I think of maps, I think of the swashbuckling adventures of Indiana Jones and Lara Croft. Those tales, of course, are fiction but stashed away in archives or tucked away in museums are real historic maps that are centuries old and are every bit as fascinating. So to get inside the minds of the explorers of that time, I used a lot of primary sources written by people who made the maps. I used these early explorer narratives and also cited modern archaeological studies and genetic research to help shed new light on the past.

"Maps are an interesting window into the past. I wanted to tell the stories of the flesh and blood characters behind them. The book is not so much about the maps, but people behind them and the stories that they tell."

Adam Shoalts' comments have been edited and condensed.

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