The Young Fur Traders, RM Ballantyne

#MARM2021

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.

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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.”

Saving Francesca, Melina Marchetta

Facts must be faced. I read like a girl. I got home yesterday, after eight 16 hour days of work, which is standard, tired out of my brain, had a shower, a drink, answered the easier emails, picked up a comfort read from the shelf where it had been sitting for the last couple of years, plunged right in, watched a bit of footy, the wrong side was winning, went to bed, read on until the book was finished.

The book? Saving Francesca (2003), as of course you can see, very well written feel-good fiction for teenage girls. And aged truck drivers. Well, aged truck drivers who also read Georgette Heyer and Jane Austen, Little Women, Anne of Green Gables.

Which reminds me, Theresa Smith, in comments on a Whispering Gums post, has set me the task of reading up on Georgette Heyer’s old fashioned rightwingedness and particularly her overt anti-semitism, which I will do, though I must say I am surprised. Is it just the equating of money lending and Jewishness – and I say ‘just’ because that is unavoidable in much older fiction – or is there more? To which I have been oblivious. We will see.

Melina Marchetta (1965- ) was a history/language teacher in a Sydney boys school but is now a full time writer, no doubt following the success of her first book (and movie) Looking for Alibrandi (1992). Saving Francesca was her second and she has since written four or five others including The Piper’s Son (2010) which is apparently based around one of the boys in Saving Francesca.

I read Looking for Alibrandi some years ago, saw the movie on TV, enjoyed them both, was happy to pick up Saving Francesca when I saw it second-hand, to save for a rainy day.

Francesca is 16, starting Year 11 in the first cohort of girls in an inner-Sydney Catholic boys high school. She, Tara, Siobhan, and Justine, all ‘outsiders’, are the only girls from her old school and all her friendship group have gone on to a different school.

This morning my mother didn’t get out of bed.

Opening line

Mother, Mia is a livewire, a feminist, a university lecturer. Robert, husband, father, is laid-back, a builder. They were childhood sweethearts, and lovers it turns out, married young. It’s the sort of family where Francesca and her younger brother lie on their parents’ bed, talking to their mother late into the night while Robert sleeps and snores; where it is unremarkable, a bit gross maybe, to see each other naked.

So Mia not getting out of bed is a big deal, and it goes on for most of Francesca’s Year 11. A year of working out who your friends are – you might think there would be a ‘villain’ amongst the boys, but there’s not. They are just as awkward as the girls. And it slowly becomes apparent that the awkwardest of them have their virtues, hidden behind boy-grossness of course.

I miss … Mia. I want her to say, “Frankie, you’re silly, you’re lazy, you’re talented, you’re passionate, you’re restrained, you’re blossoming, you’re contrary.”
I want to be an adjective again.
But I’m a noun.
A nothing. A nobody. A no one.

Slowly, Francesca becomes aware that she and the other outsider girls have formed a friendship group, is surprised again, later in the year, to find that their group includes boys. It’s very well done.

Meanwhile, Mia’s depression is not being named, not being discussed, not being treated. Robert monopolizes Mia, willing her to snap out of it, bewildered when she doesn’t, refusing to discuss her illness with Francesca. But Francesca too is an unreliable narrator here, unaware that her own silence about Mia is making her unwell. As you might expect from a teacher-author, some of the teachers cut Francesca a lot of slack, and she spends days asleep in one teacher’s office. At least that teacher finally gets Francesca to see a counsellor.

Gradually, we see from their reactions – though it is not clear Francesca realizes this – that the other kids are aware of what Francesca is dealing with, and they too cut her some slack.

Only at the end, it comes out that her parents have been keeping a big secret (and I don’t think it’s in character that Mia would). Francesca has a fight with her father …

“You keep her all to yourself. You think you can fix everything by forgetting about it but you just make things worse. It’s all your fault. You’ve kept her sick, because you don’t know how to handle it. Because you’re a weakling. Everyone says you are, and I believe it and Mummy could have done better than you and I don’t know why you don’t fuck off now before you make it worse.”

… runs off, ends up in an outer suburban police station, is picked up by her father, talks to him, sits on her bed talking all night to her friends, the love interest thing is dealt with (I’ve been ignoring it).

It’s fun. Not preachy. Not overwhelmed by ‘issues’. A year in a life with lots of stuff going on, growing up getting done. Inner-western Sydney just lightly pencilled in. A happy-ish, realistic ending. Highly recommended.

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Melina Marchetta, Saving Francesca, Penguin, Melbourne, 2003