Americans, writes Andrew Malcolm, who has recently completed a four-year stint as chief of The New York Times Canadian bureau, "didn't know much about this newer country, but what they did know, they thought more of than did Canadians themselves." Malcolm's very readable description of the "newer" country exudes the excitement of discovery. Like any discoverer, the author keeps looking inward as he assembles his observations.

As one of the millions of North Americans whose relatives are to be found on both sides of the fabled undefended border, Malcolm gives pleasant rein to nostalgia, warmly recording childhood visits with close relatives in Ontario and Manitoba. But the sense of great familiarity ends there. This is a good thing; his rambling account of trips far and wide across the world's "second largest country" is clearly the account of a foreign observer.

Like most of the throng of Americans who annually visit Canada, Malcolm is in love with the wilderness and especially with the far North. His vivid descriptions of the northern frontier and of the people sprinkled across its dramatic vastness are the most effective, almost unifying, elements in an otherwise rather disjointed collective portrait. Trappers, oil drillers, lonely prospectors, Mounties, Hudson Bay Company storekeepers, native people -- all are seen in sharp, individual focus.

The North -- and the ancient Canadian conviction that a natural resources cornucopia, plus real estate, are the surest guarantors of economic health and security -- lie at the heart of Malcolm's report. But atop this base, he weaves a secondary, familiar fable whose purport is that Canadian geography has always been an insuperable obstacle to unity. Because of his very American emphasis on the apparent disunity of Canada, Malcolm's account of recent Canadian economic buccaneering and financial clout may strike the reader as more than a little surprising. There is an apparent anomaly in Canada's sudden emergence, from a group of squabbling regions, as a neomercantilist state. To this puzzle Malcolm applies tangential commentary rather than systematic analysis.

While this may be unfair criticism of a reportorial and delightfully personal book, it is perhaps justified by the author's claim to penetrate the "thin veneer" of similarity that covers considerable differences between the two North American federations and peoples.

Malcolm does depict the causal relationship between, on the one hand, the notable Canadian acceptance of an active governmental role in social-economic life and, on the other, a small population spread across a semi-continental territory. Economic and communal development simply required active government. And this syndrome did tend to place individual enterprise (in a purely economic sense) lower in the Canadian scale of social values than was the case in the Republic. It is also true that Canadians are apt to be cautious and to play down their various achievements -- many of which Malcolm handsomely records. But in underlining all this with a wealth of entertaining anecdotes, he returns continually to the notion of Canada as the younger brother on the continent. Like all such youngsters, he suggests, the "new" Canada is maturing. It is now producing "aggressive" capitalists almost like Americans, except that they like to be "coddled" by their government, which gives them almost unfair support both at home and in their forays abroad.

There is, of course, considerable accuracy in these observations, and they are enlivened by a startling array of statistics about Canadian investment in the United States. But Malcolm, I think, should have pondered more carefully a remark made by Thoreau in 1851 (which he quotes): "Why should Canada, wild and unsettled as it is, impress one as an older country than the United States, except that her institutions are old?" What Malcolm seems unaware of is the element of continuity in the Canadian experience, a continuity that was broken in the United States by the War of Independence but that in Canada remains the fundamental requirement of legitimacy. Deference to authority, as well as tolerance of dissent, both spring from a sense of legitimacy; they bespeak a muted confidence more than the superficial identity crisis that Malcolm notes is a favorite plaything of Canadian intellectuals.

Perhaps most disturbing, at least to a Canadian eye, is Malcolm's near dismissal of the fractious French Canadians as "separatists." No previous foreign account of the country has made this mistake. In doing so, Malcolm employs essentially American criteria. For it is the long and continuing political process of adjusting provincial and cultural diversity to a federal, mercantilist state that has made Canada more European than American in every sense save that of geography.

Nevertheless, while non-Canadians will learn little from this book about the historic evolution and inner political-cultural machinery of Canada, they will discover a good deal about why the country has the world's second-highest standard of living and why the American economic establishment is worried about the immediate future of Canadian-American relations.