Patriots & Traitors

by Jean-Guy Carrier, Jean Guy Carrier,
ISBN: 0887508782

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Brief Reviews - Fiction
by Virginia Beaton

FEW THINGS can be more mystifying to a child than the passions and quarrels of adults. Ernest Fortin, the young protagonist of Jean-Guy Carrier's Patriots and Traitors (Oberon, 105 pages, $29.95 cloth, $15.95 paper) is caught up in no mere quarrel, but a full-fledged crisis in Canadian history that will profoundly affect his own life.

The time is 1885, just before Louis Riel is to be hanged for treason. Growing up in a Montreal tenement, Ernest is aware of tensions in his neighbourhood. His own notions are vague, but his parents and his best friend Le Taon regard Riel as a visionary rebel. Le Taon says to Ernest about Riel, "He tells all of us that the day you begin to think differently is the day things change."

Things change abruptly at a rowdy public assembly. Skilfully blending fact and fiction in his narrative, Carrier creates a scene where the boy's future is forever altered: his father dies suddenly in the riot and, during a scuffle with police, Ernest is involved in a shooting. His friend Le Taon agrees to take the blame, accepting a jail all term in exchange for Ernest's safety.

As he leaves behind his humble surroundings, Ernest is sponsored by a priest who oversees his education and career in law school. But his smooth progress in society is interrupted by an unexpectedly violent episode, which suggests that the boy who witnessed the Riel riot has grown into a coldly calculating man.

Carrier's minute observations of behaviour and scenery are a pleasure to read, but it's hard to escape the feeling that his depiction of Montreal's social classes - the downtrodden poor versus the corrupt, manipulative rich - is too simplistic to be completely believable. Complex entanglements among church, politicians, and police existed at all levels of society a century ago just as surely as they do today.


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