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.”