The Young Fur Traders, RM Ballantyne


For the third consecutive weekend I am home and not working. The problem this causes is that I am not driving, listening to my (second) #MARM2021 read, On Writers and Writing (2015). So for a change, I have commenced listening in the hour between finishing reading and falling asleep.

However, being home does give me the opportunity to re-read, in connection with Canada if not directly with MA, a childhood favourite, The Young Fur Traders (1856), given to me by my paternal grandfather – going by the handwriting of my name on the flyleaf – sixty years ago this xmas. I looked along my top shelf to see if I also have his copy, I don’t, but I do have my father’s, though uninscribed.

According to Wikipedia, Margaret Atwood (1939- ) “spent much of her childhood in the backwoods of northern Quebec, and travelling back and forth between Ottawa, Sault Ste. Marie and Toronto.” This is reflected in the two works of hers that I have reviewed, Cat’s Eye and Surfacing. RM Ballantyne (1825-1894), a Scot, spent five years in Canada, from ages 16 to 21, working for the Hudson’s Bay Company. On his return to Scotland he wrote Hudson’s Bay: or, Life in the Wilds of North America (1848), then around 100 adventure stories for boys, of which this is the first.

We begin with Charley, 15 and his sister Kate, 14 planning their futures on the banks of the Red River – his as an adventurer in the wilds, hers home caring for their parents, their father having that day removed them from school.

In the very centre of the great continent of North America, far removed from the abodes of civilised men, and about twenty miles to the south of Lake Winnipeg exists a colony composed of Indians, Scotsmen and French-Canadians, which is known by the name of Red River Settlement… At the time at which we write, it contained about five thousand souls, and extended upwards of fifty miles along the Red and Assiniboine Rivers… The banks were clothed with fine trees; and immediately behind the settlement lay the great prairies, which extended in undulating waves – almost entirely devoid of shrub or tree – to the base of the Rocky Mountains.

This, I discover via Google Maps, is now the city of Winnipeg, Manitoba, on the far side of the Great Lakes from ‘Atwood’ country, but similar sounding in Ballantyne’s descriptions, to the island in Surfacing.

Given Ballantyne’s stated commitment to accuracy I am interested most in his descriptions. So voyageurs were “descended, generally, from French-Canadian sires and Indian mothers [uniting] some of the good and not a few of the bad qualities of both … the full, muscular frame of the Canadian with the fierce passions and active habits of the Indian.” “They were employed … in navigating the Hudson’s Bay Company boats, laden with furs and goods, through the labyinth of rivers and lakes that stud and intersect the whole continent … or in the pursuit of bisons which roam the prairies in vast herds.”

Charley is accepted by the Company and is conveyed up the Red River and across Lake Winnipeg to Norway House. He meets on the way an Indian guide who tells him a story of his first raiding party, with the Knisteneux [Cree] against the Chipewyans. He becomes a hunter and – we skip a year – joins a small party opening a new trading post in uncharted country north of the Sakatchewan. Charlie and an older hunter whose native language was any one of English, French and ‘Indian’ [surely, there’s more than one].

In truth, this is more travelogue than adventure yarn – though there a few of those as we go along – but an extraordinarily interesting one. Nineteenth century Canada seems like an inverse Australia – a vast unpopulated hinterland but (below) freezing cold with great forests and innumerable streams and lakes and of course endless snow to match our red sand, desert scrub and dry creek beds under a blazing sun.

In fact Australia pops up a couple of times – a horse as long-legged as a kangaroo, and an outpost as desolate as Botany Bay.

Ballantyne describes at length the clothing of the hunters and of the Knisteneux; their feasts and their travelling rations; takes us shooting rapids in bark canoes – after teaching us how to construct one; and hunting for wolves, birds, foxes and of course bison.

And where is Ms Atwood during all of this. Talking quietly into my right ear each evening. She has marvellous diction, largely unaccented. Perhaps modern Australian English is more American than I realise. Into my right ear so it can go out my left. Not much is sticking. I am sure she would enjoy the scenery of this novel, home territory for her, if a few hundred kilometres north and west. I wonder if her father or her brother had Ballantyne’s book. Surely every middle class household in the Dominions at least had Coral Island.

I recall no First Nations presence in Surfacing and Cat’s Eye. I wonder why that is. Here the ‘Indians’ are central, not as protagonists, though one is on the edge of the action throughout, and another is assigned the role of villain. They are exotic, colour, as is always the case in travel stories; it is they with whom the Hudson Bay Company trades; but sadly it is not a trade between equals.

There is a hierarchy. Young Charlie is soon a boss, a bourgeois, in charge of a small outpost. Beneath him is a hunter of 40 years experience of French-Canadian and Indian blood, and beneath them are any Knisteneux who have come into the camp for work. The Knisteneux chief is harangued for failing to bring in enough furs to satisfy the trading post commandant.

In all these Boys Own type books, society is entirely masculine. A few men, years away together, enclosed throughout the winter months into small, shared spaces. Perhaps it’s a product of their schools, Eton, Winchester and so on. The voyageurs are fathered by French Canadians, the British don’t do that sort of thing.

Ms Atwood goes on, reading, talking. I wake with a start, I really must review her properly. I hope it gets past I was a cute little girl, I was a beatnik in college. Charley finally gets to go home to his beautiful sister – the language with which they describe each other is nauseating – but luckily, approaching adulthood, her attentions are directed elsewhere. Boys Own writers do romance really badly, but all ends well.


RM Ballantyne, The Young Fur Traders, first pub. 1856. My edition (pictured) Ward, Lock & Co.

A discussion we’ve had before: “the canoe entered one of these small rivulets which are called in Scotland burns, and in America creeks.”

30 thoughts on “The Young Fur Traders, RM Ballantyne

  1. I read this one too, when I was young. (I mean here in Australia).
    It’s interesting how some books from Canada made it into the ‘universal’ canon for young readers at that time.


  2. I’ve seen this book but never read it (likely picked up some enticing looking second-hand copies over the years though, probably considered adding one of them to my shelves). The main difference between the two geographies is that the northern Ontario experience would have more black flies and many more rocks in those waterways. But, otherwise, close enough, for a reader’s imagination.


    • My father’s copy has a different cover (and a different publisher) – a man shooting a bear – it’s frustrating that they are undated. Next up I have my grandfather’s ancient copy, no dustjacket, and printed on blotting paper, of ES Ellis, Lost among the Red Men. No idea where it’s set.

      I don’t think Ballantyne mentions flies, but then he gives the impression that it barely stops snowing. If I work this week, and I hope I do, I may still make MARM21 with an actual Atwood. She’s good to listen to, though the I did this, I did that of Chapter 1 is a bit wearing.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve read a similar book, The Young Voyageur by Dirk Gringhuis, originally published in 1955.It’s now published by the Mackinac State Historic Parks and I picked up a copy as a young lass when we vacationed in the area (where Lakes Michigan and Ontario, and beyond the Soo (Sault St. Marie) Locks, Lake Superior meet. IIRC, the protagonist was an English or American boy who desperately wanted to become a voyageur. It also covers the time period when there was an Indian uprising and attack on Fort Michilimackinac.


    • Thanks for commenting. I can imagine that the idea of being a ‘voyageur’ seemed very adventurous, to young men in the nineteenth century. Though I’m not sure I could have gone three years without a girlfriend at that age!


  4. I haven’t read this but your post reminded me of Red River Rock by Johnny & the Hurricanes, which was a frantic version of the old song, Red River Valley. I think it must be the same setting as the Red River Settlement.


  5. Thanks for commenting Rose. When I started reading I thought Red River was a made-up name so I was astonished when I located all Ballantyne’s rivers and lakes on Google Maps. I have now found Red River Rock on You Tube, I can only imagine it is Winnipeg’s theme song. I was going to say I can’t imagine an Australian one that good, but there is Great Southern Land.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I have never read this before, though I loved Coral Island when I was young (despite the fact that it’s now so dated – I was just a sucker for all that Boys’ Own Adventure stuff, at least until I was old enough to wonder why girls didn’t get to have any adventures of their own in those books). I’m tempted to pick this up and see what I make of it as an adult – I’m sure I would have loved it as a child!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lou, the top shelves of my living room bookcase are evidence that Boys Own books were pretty popular in my own family (I forget if I gave my son any, though he always had access to mine).
      The Young Fur Traders is a coming of age in an adventurous job rather than an adventure story – no doubt reflecting Ballantyne’s own experience. You suspect he spent more than one winter snow-bound in a remote trading outpost by the way he describes the tedium.
      I would be really interested to know how you found the roles of the three women who do get to play a (small) part in the story.
      I’m trying to think of old-time women action heroes. There’s Annie Oakley, though I can’t imagine Hollywood allowed her any real independence. Interestingly the first cover for My Brilliant Career had Sybylla cowboy-style on a galloping horse.


  7. I love that you have series of books belonging to you, your father and your grandfather that you can compare at times! Then again, coming from a line of bookbuyers, I’m sort of glad I’m estranged from my family otherwise I’d have to buy the house next door to act as a library!


  8. I was ‘lucky’, my maternal grandfather’s books were stored in the old, open-fronted, log and thatch stable (mum blames her older sister) and only a few survived. But I have 15 boxes of my dad’s books unopened in the spare bedroom. A problem for my kids and grandkids! Those old books are my retirement present to myself. When I do retire I will retreat into the nineteenth century.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. I’ve been to both Toronto and Ste. St. Marie. They’re quite different, but both are close to Michigan thanks to the state’s mitten shape.

    Your comment about how masculine boys’ adventure novels are reminds me of the boom of teen girl books in the 80s and 90s, which always showcased dating, horses, being popular and beautiful, and difficult friendships. Parents were, oddly, prefect. I wonder, what is the place of these books in society, and why did we love them? I think I was so immersed in the teen girl books that I assumed I would grow up and live like those characters, even as they were driving convertible sports cars to high school and suffering amnesia because, dang it, they rode a motorcycle that one time. Are we simply supposed to enjoy these books for young people and eat them up, or are they telling us about who we are supposed to be?

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s difficult to imagine how different Australia would be if it had all those lakes, all that water in the centre of the country.
      Those books you grew up with sound like 50s/60s television, the Patty Duke Show for instance (or Gidget!). My kids were teenagers in the 90s. Luckily, kids over here don’t get to drive cars to school, open-top Mustangs or otherwise. Yes, those books were propaganda – you belonged to the best, most lucky, most deserving people in the world, white middle America, and all you had to do to keep it going was to find a nice, middle income man and have 2.5 kids in the suburbs.


      • Call me goofy, but I didn’t even think about Australia not having lakes simply because you’re surrounded by water. “Isn’t all of Australia a lake?” she thinks, while failing to consider logic.

        When do people start driving in Australia (if at all)? In the U.S. we begin at 14 years and 9 months with driver’s training (what are we thinking?????) and then licensed at 16. Oddly, Gen Z has started a trend of not getting a license until age 18, and I’m not sure what that’s about. To be fair, minimum wage jobs pay so poorly I do not know how they would maintain the gas and insurance and upkeep on a car if it was their sole responsibility, so why not be driven around instead. I was reading more about this and saw that many Gen Z find cars scary, and while on the surface that may sound…pathetic…I agree that driving is scary. I used to love driving, just cruising around. But I’ve also found that as we become more divided and angry, it’s making its way into the driving. People are judging each other based on what the other person drives, whether it’s a Prius or a pickup with a lift kit.


      • I’d say Hi Goofy, except I hadn’t really thought myself about just how many lakes and rivers there are around the Great Lakes. Most of Australia has zero surface water. Driving from Perth to the Eastern States, say 2,500 miles, you can travel 2,000 of those miles, without crossing a single river.

        Driving is covered by state laws, but generally kids can start learning at 17 and get their licence at 18. Then you need a year’s experience before you get a truck licence and another year before you get a combination (road train) licence.

        One of my three (fortyish) children has never got a licence. He had to learn to ride a motorbike to get around in Malawi and it was nearly the end of him. I drive a HiLux ute (pickup), not jacked up but with a substantial bull bar, judge me how you will.


  10. I remember this from childhood. I have a Hudson Bay blanket. They are incredibly well made and warm. One buys them for a lifetime but I recently learned that when the Hudson Bay company was still young, back in the 1800s they used to give these blankets out to the native Canadians and would smear them with smallpox. They ended up wiping out many of the indigenous people. Such a sad history of a company.


    • The weaponising of smallpox was a disgrace, one of many. Smallpox was almost eradicated by the time Australia was settled, and the interior of North America began to be opened up, and yet officially or unofficially, they contrived to introduce it to ‘disperse’ Indigenous populations.

      I did my best to analyse race relations in The Young Fur Traders. Ballantyne certainly does not question the ‘right’ of Europeans to waltz in and begin occupying, first coastal, and then interior lands. But he really sidesteps the question by presenting the Hudson Bay Co. as establishing trading posts in unoccupied areas and supposedly dealing with the Cree as equals


  11. I cannot imagine suddenly being removed from school (was it just their age or was there another reason for leaving school on the same day?) and being told that ‘he’ gets to be an adventurer in the wilds, while ‘she’ gets to stay home caring for their parents. What a choice. No doubt the rest of that sentence reads ‘until she gets married and has a brood of kids of her own to care for on her own while he is off adventuring some more’.


    • Re being removed from school, Ballantyne doesn’t say why. 14-15 is the age most children left school up to the 1960s unless they were in the minority bound for university. Kate wasn’t needed at home, their mother was still there, so perhaps it was something to do with ‘pointless to send you if Charley’s not there to walk with you’.
      Charley in fact was intended for a clerkship until he was a bit older, a tedious life which his friend Harry has to endure (and I expect Ballantyne did too) for a couple of more years. But Charley persuades his father, and more importantly his father’s friend, who’s the local manager at Red Creek, that he’s ready to become a voyageur.
      Boys Own books don’t speculate about what happens to girls after marriage (though I have a very interesting one where the couple jumps the gun and then the guy is killed before the wedding can take place. PC Wren, Worth Wile)


  12. I have never read any Ballantyne because I just was not interested in adventure. I’ve read very few adventure classics.

    I was beginning to wonder where Atwood was in all this given you started with the MARM hashtag!

    Re your question “I recall no First Nations presence in Surfacing and Cat’s Eye. I wonder why that is.” I’d say the same reason that this often happens/happened in Aus literature, which is because First Nations people just didn’t feature in the lives of the people she is writing about. Cat’s Eye draws from her schooling in Toronto. Is she likely to have met and engaged with First Nations people. Very unlikely, just like any Sydney or Melbourne author writing about schooling in those cities, particularly a few decades ago. Don’t you think?


    • Sue, have you read BIP’s MARM summary posts, MA hardly gets a mention. I’ve been meaning to read TYFT for a while, and I wasn’t getting anywhere with On Writers and Writing, so I thought why not.

      MA seems to have the same sort of reputation for activism as Tim Winton (a generation or two younger) has. But by the evidence of her early books, First Nations people were invisible to her back then, as they were to all urban whites; and anyway MA spent a lot of her early childhood and later holidays in the backwoods.


      • NO, I haven’t had time, and as I’m not dang MARM I’ve let those slip. My man knowledge of MA’s activism is primarily environmental, but I do see on Twitter or somewhere that she’s expanded into social justice.

        Living in Mt Isa in the early 1960s I was very aware of First Nations people, but then moved to Sydney in 1966 (what a culture shock that was for a new adolescent) And “poof” they were gone. But by 1967 I was reading Kath Walker (as she was thern), I the Aboriginal, and was concerned about Civil Rights. But it was theoretical, really, as there were no people “of colour” around me.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s