Using one edge of the imagination as a perforated line, the great mass of fiction in English can be separated neatly in two. There's fantasy fiction, which includes scifi, magic realism, the gothic, the hallucinatory, and the prophetic. And then there are the novels ticking over in real time. These are all glued to what has gone before, yet if set in the very recent past, they can feel more contemporary than current newspapers. The Golden Notebook, Fear of Flying, Bonfire of the Vanities - the good ones catch what's in the air, the Zeitgeist, the temper of their times.
Even books written 50 or 60 years ago can have some immediacy of time and place for readers not that old- we recognize the world implanted in us by our parents' and grandparents' personal lore. But novels written about still earlier times tend to be pigeon-holed as period pieces or, if their authors were casting back at the time of writing, as historical novels.
Mention that last category and many discerning readers will hasten you on to another subject. Why? Because they're not intimately acquainted with the period being described, and they suspect that neither are most of the authors. Historical novels are often an elaborate literary charade with plenty of period exteriors, but no convincing inner lives. So I'm loath to say that Douglas Glover has written a historical novel, though he has. Wait! Don't stop reading! The Life arid Times of Captain N. is a superb book, with no affinity to Ivanhoe and its ilk, much more like Mao II than like Mazo de la Roche, a spellbinding read and a writerly tour de force. If Canadians had been penning great novels in the 1780s, this could have been one, a worthy precursor to Doris Lessing and Don DeLillo.
Glover has recreated the chaotic world of the northeastern United States during the revolutionary years of 1779 and 1780. Civil society has broken down, normal family life is in disarray, the old world has been irrevocably ruptured, and a new one is messily being born - and along with it, incidentally, English Canada. By drawing us inside the experience of a handful of white people and aboriginals deeply involved in the war, Glover, with his own potent eye and ear, enables the reader to see and hear and smell and touch the way it was to be alive at our beginning two centuries ago.
Hendrick Nellis is a headstrong Tory who has deserted his wife and son to fight for the king against the American rebels. His son, Oskar, inclines toward the republican forces, writes letters to General George Washington, and, at the story's outset, dreams of a glorious career as a revolutionary soldier. But his father is allied with a group of Messessagey Indians, and when he kidnaps Oskar, the boy is quickly drawn into the Native underground, ground, shaves his head and adopts Native dress, and fights alongside the aboriginals for the Tory cause. There's an irony to the son's slide into Native culture - Hendrick Nellis is known as the Redeemer because he's made it his personal crusade to reclaim whites who have "gone Indian." Through the book runs the parallel story of Mary Hunsacker, a young white girl who is abducted by a band of Messessageys after they've slaughtered her family at home on the farm. Mary will be Nellis's last reclamation, after which she becomes Oskar's wife.
Hendrick, Oskar, and Mary are the book's three narrators, and Glover has endowed each of them with a richly textured, compelling voice. I came across only one moment when the voice seemed to undermine the character. You'd hardly expect a simple pioneer girl to use this language when thinking of her Native captors: "I could see the worry in their faces, as if the grammar of their resolve and the structure of the world they were about to meet in battle were different." Noam Chomsky meets Dale Evans? But this is a rare misstep. Glover's story pulses with authentic dailiness, and he wraps the voices of his characters convincingly around their carefully observed experience. And unlike many historical novels, this one wears its research lightly, yet is dense with finely carved historical detail.
There's another powerful voice in these pages, though it comes from no single narrator. It's an elegiac chorus, the collective lament of the Native people, a sort of supernatural, chanting subtext. With snatches of dialogue, mournful echoes of Native camp songs, and white anxieties about Native ways, Glover laces his chronicle with the mystical Native presence. He conveys the primordial fear whites felt in the face of the powerful, pre-rational, pantheistic culture of the Natives and reminds us, without actually saying it, that 200 years ago the aboriginals "owned" the land in profound ways that no group of whites - with or without legal title- could.
There's plenty of action in this book - much of it gruesome - though character rather than plot is its driving force. What will keep readers turning the pages is Glover's mastery of language, the way he has managed not only to furnish his book with pioneer decor, but to infuse it with the lusts and terrors and dreams that filled the North American white mind two centuries ago. It was a bloody time when the future was crashing in on the past, and the old culture, a mutual mix of pioneer and Native ways, was dying. Glover has brought it all very close in this eloquent and unsentimental epitaph.