Travels in Search of Canada

By Will Ferguson

Canongate. 342 pp. Paperback, $14.95

The salient feature of his homeland, writes Canadian humorist Will Ferguson in "Beauty Tips From Moose Jaw," is that it's "a collection of outposts."

Also the author of "Why I Hate Canadians," Ferguson uses this far-flung condition as an excuse to ramble lightheartedly from outpost to outpost, crossing our vast northern neighbor from west to east, though with breaks in the time sequence. Some of his forays originated as magazine assignments, and often his family went along. In one province, his son Alex might be a wisecracking boy, while two provinces "later" he is a toddler in diapers, which can be a mite disconcerting to the reader.

In any event, Ferguson makes no bones about Canada's faults -- the weather, above all. As a young man, he found himself "marooned" one winter in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, and the experience just about broke his spirit. "Sometimes a word or place becomes symbolic of a larger event," he writes. "The literary term for this is metonymy: 'He met his Waterloo.' 'We don't want this turning into another Vietnam.' . . . To this day, whenever I hear of a young person struggling and adrift, I think to myself, Ah, she's facing her Saskatoon."

But when the adult Ferguson returns to face the actual Saskatoon, he finds it surprisingly fetching, and Canada as a whole interests him so much that he has little patience with compatriots who look south for their mythology. He rails in general at the Disneyfication of Canada and in particular at the antics of boosters in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, who have swarmed all over a tenuous connection between their town and Al Capone. True, Moose Jaw flourished during Prohibition, but the evidence that Capone ever paid it a visit is slim. On top of that, Moose Jawians (if that's the proper nomenclature) have a boozy lawbreaker of their own to celebrate: a bootlegger named Annie Hoburg, who, at a time (the 1880s) when police were too proper to look under a lady's skirt, sewed rubber flasks into her petticoats. She also spent a great deal of time pushing a baby carriage, especially odd considering that she was childless. "So what," Ferguson asks, "if her baby, swaddled in blankets, tended to clink when the buggy hit a bump?"

In Churchill, Manitoba, Ferguson comes face to face with a polar bear, and in southern Ontario he looks into the anomalous presence of tobacco farms. The crop was introduced by escaped slaves from the American South who fled to Canada via the Underground Railroad; among these was Josiah Henson, likely model for the title character of Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin." (As one might expect, Ferguson's chapter on the Railroad is one in which he gives his sense of humor a rest.)

In locales where this reviewer could check Ferguson's work against personal experience -- such as the winsome Quebecois village of Tadoussac, on the Gulf of St. Lawrence -- the writer acquits himself well (though he says nothing about the fine French fare served in the restaurants). He vividly evokes the crazy-angled streets of St. John's, Newfoundland, and it's nice to know that he took an excursion into the Atlantic and had an encounter with a humpback whale, as every visitor to St. John's should.

Tying up a nation of far-flung outposts with a single bow is no easy job, and Ferguson's conclusion -- that Canadians are "all orphans . . . all survivors of shipwrecks, and we carry these stories of exile and renewal within us, whether we are aware of it or not" -- could fit other nations equally well, including the United States. But if Ferguson doesn't quite manage to get his arms around the whole of Canada, he evokes his selected outposts so entertainingly that few readers are likely to complain. Here is what he says about his sighting of a moose clan in Newfoundland: "They are the inbred Habsburg monarchs of the animal kingdom, combining regal deportment with huge, misshapen noses. Prehensile noses." Now that's the kind of observer -- sharp-eyed and irreverent -- that a reader likes to sojourn with.