CM . . .
. Volume XXIII Number 39. . . .June 16, 2017
Vancouver, BC: Ronsdale Press, 2017.
210 pp., trade pbk., e-book & pdf, $11.95 (pbk.).
ISBN 978-1-55380-493-2 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-55380-494-9 (e-book), ISBN 978-1-55380-495-3 (pdf).
North West Company-Juvenile fiction.
Fraser, Simon, 1776-1862-Juvenile fiction.
Fraser River (B.C.)-Discovery and exploration-Juvenile fiction.
Grades 5 and up / Ages 10 and up.
Review by Ruth Latta.
"I've been watching you," McGillivray continues. "You're bright, you always complete your tasks and unlike some of the other lads, you keep your own counsel and avoid the temptations of the taverns. You're just the person I need for this important mission."
I can't believe what I'm hearing. I'm two short months from returning to England and finding Libby....
"Thank you, Sir," I say, "but I'm not sure I'm the right person for the job."
McGillivray's voice is soft but there's no mistaking the iron underneath.
"If you're not prepared to undertake this task I fear you'll need to look for a position somewhere else, my lad.... There's also the issue of the trouble you found yourself in back in Britain... More than a few stories about a young Highlander fleeing the King's justice on the Liverpool docks have reached these shores... Your secret is safe with me... if you're willing to go to the Rendez-vous. I have a confidential letter from the Colonial Office in London that must get to Fort William and I need you to deliver it."
The Nor'Wester is a boys' adventure novel set in the early 19th century when the fur trade in British North America was controlled by two rival companies, the Hudson's Bay Company and the North West Company. The Hudson's Bay Company controlled the area around Hudson Bay, forcing the Nor'Westers to go far across the continent for their furs. The North West Company wanted a river route to the Pacific Ocean, from which it could ship furs and receive supplies, in addition to Montreal.
Into this milieu is thrust a poor Scottish teenager, who, after a series of unfortunate events, finds himself in Montreal clerking for the North West Company. Duncan Scott, 15, whose family lost their Highland farm to large-scale sheep producers, lives in a Glasgow slum and works in a cotton mill with his parents and sister Libby. When the mill burns down and claims his parents' lives, Duncan attacks the unfeeling mill owner who holds his workers in contempt. Duncan and Libby flee, intending to lose themselves in London. A tinker who seems friendly knows they are wanted by the law and, in Liverpool, tries to turn them over to the authorities to collect a reward. Libby insists on taking the rap while Duncan stows away in a Quebec-bound ship.
Shame and regret at abandoning Libby haunt Duncan throughout the novel. He plans to return to Britain and find her after the heat dies down, and he works as a warehouse clerk to earn his passage back. When Lord William McGillivray, director of the North West Company, gives him a Hobson's choice (see beginning quote), he sets out with a party of voyageurs bound for Fort William at the head of Lake Superior.
At Fort William, Duncan learns that the confidential message is for Simon Fraser who is the most senior North West Company trader west of the Rockies and who is based at Fort St. James. The letter orders Fraser to chart a river, thought to be the Columbia, to the Pacific. The mouth of the Columbia is well-known to explorers, and the Company hopes this river can be their trade route. Fifteen years earlier, Sir Alexander Mackenzie mapped part of it but abandoned it because of the dangerous rapids, continuing to the Pacific overland.
With a party of voyageurs, Duncan travels to Fort St. James and delivers the message to Simon Fraser, then accompanies Fraser on his expedition. As we know from history, the river that Fraser explored was not the Columbia, but a different river that now bears his name. The old saying: "The journey, not the destination, matters" is borne out by The Nor'Wester as the character-building experiences that Duncan undergoes are the most important thing. As someone tells him at the end, "You went out as a boy and have come back as a man."
The Nor'Wester has plenty of dramatic tension, including cliffhanger chapter endings, and will educate young readers while entertaining them. Included are maps of Britain and Canada showing key locations mentioned in the story. Through Duncan's eyes, readers experience the rigors of ocean voyages and wilderness exploration and learn about indigenous communities and the customs of the voyageurs.
The voyageurs' beliefs are interesting. On leaving St. Anne de Bellevue at the beginning of their journey, they seek the blessing of a priest and donate coins to the alms box for good luck. Luc, one of the voyageurs, tells Duncan, "I know what can happen in the wilds and believe me, there is nothing wrong with asking for a little intervention divine." Later, on entering the wide expanse of Georgian Bay, the voyageurs cast buttons, tobacco and other offerings into the water so that "La Veille", the old lady wind, won't sink their canoes. "We're in La Veille's country now," Luc says, "and I have no problem praying to whoever will help me stay alive." This blending of Christianity and nature religion is part of the Canadian tradition, according to John Ralston Saul (see: Reflections of a Siamese Twin: Canada at the End of the Twentieth Century).
Much of the novel, including some of the dialogue, comes from Simon Fraser's journal. In the "Author's Note", David Starr indicates which characters are fictional and which were real. Among the historical figures are several native people, including Duyunun, Chief Kwah and Little Fellow, who aided the Fraser expedition. Starr says that he made a "conscious effort to respect and use the names preferred by the native people themselves, instead of the names ascribed to them by Fraser and others, including 'Indian'."
In the “Author's Note, readers are told how to pronounce "Secwepemc" and "Nlaka'pamux", but there is no pronunciation guide to names like "Tcexe'x", "Ylo'sem", "Xats'ull", "Duyunun", to name just a few.
One jarring note, at least to this reader, is the name the author chose for his fictional central character. "Duncan Scott" is uncomfortably similar to that of a real figure in Canadian history, Duncan Campbell Scott (1862-1947). Famous as a Confederation poet, Duncan Campbell Scott is infamous because, as deputy superintendent of Indian Affairs from 1913 to 1932, he supported the assimilation of native peoples through the residential schools system. Young readers, however, probably haven't heard of Duncan Campbell Scott.
The Nor'Wester shows respect for indigenous cultures and upholds an ideal of harmony between Europeans and native people. Toward the end, Simon Fraser tells Duncan: "Some people call these people 'savages', and while it is true they live a strange life by our European standards, they're no different in their hearts from any of us. The colour of their skin may be different but the same strengths and faults we find in Montreal or London are here in the wilds." These words may have come from Fraser's journal and express an enlightened view for the era.
With its sound historical perspective, good storytelling and admirable central character, The Nor'Wester deserves a place in every Canadian school library.
Ruth Latta's young adult historical novel, Grace and the Secret Vault, is available from firstname.lastname@example.org.
on this title or this review, send mail to email@example.com.
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