by Margaret Elphinstone
ISBN: 1552783758

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A Review of: Voyageurs
by Anne Cimon

A friend, who lives in Ottawa, recently remarked that the early history of Canada came alive for him, not in the local museums, however fine they are, but one summer evening when he was paddling a canoe among the islands on the Ottawa River.
Margaret Elphinstone's new novel, Voyageurs, is a brilliant evocation of colonial times when adventurers canoed through the Canadian wilderness questing for furs. The narrator, Mark Greenhow, is a young British man in search of something more valuable: his missionary sister, Rachel, who married a voyageur, and soon after, mysteriously disappeared.
The frame of the story isn't an original device: a fictional editor, with the same initials as the author, finds a nineteenth century manuscript in the attic of her house during renovations. After reading the compelling story written by the ancestor and namesake of the previous owner, she has it published. What makes the story unusual is that it is told by a young man who belonged to the local community of Quakers "who speak the truth and cheat nobody." His writing is precise, sometimes close to precious, and very vivid.
The Quakers are pacifists and when Greenhow arrives in the colony in 1812, his principles are tested, for he arrives at a time of war. John Graves Simcoe, who became the first lieutenant Governor of Canada in 1791, had encouraged Quakers to settle in what was to become Ontario. Greenhow turns up at the Yonge Street Quaker community where he learns more about what happened to his sister Rachel, who was disowned after she married an outsider.
Greenhow is a quiet but observant narrator who often makes reference to biblical verses. He's also well versed in the literature of his time. Back in England, Greenhow was a guide around the Lake District where he grew up. He speaks of William Wordsworth, Robert Southey, and Sir Walter Scott, the most revered tale spinner of the times. This impresses his brother-in-law, Alan Mackenzie, a Scot and a poetaster, who becomes his friend. He leads Greenhow to Michigan and the island where Rachel was given up for dead two years earlier.
The novel's plot is as carefully crafted as one of the canoes that Mark paddles through the rapids. Voyageurs is a page-turner, but of a slower and more thoughtful variety, than the average historical yarn. There are many dramatic scenes and lively dialogue to enjoy on the way to the happy ending.
Elphinstone cannily contrasts Greenhow's twenty- something Quaker ways with the tough men he encounters. His goodwill quickly wins him friends among the French voyageurs who sing as they paddle and portage, and tease Greenhow without mercy.
When a beautiful Ojibwa girl gives him a pair of beaded moccasins, Greenhow is embarrassed, and wonders if his pared-down religion allows him to slip into such colourful footwear. His attraction to the young Ojibwa tests his spirit and self-discipline. As Greenhow travels deeper into the wilds of Michigan and encounters Native warriors, he becomes a "hybrid creature", his inner and outer selves transformed by his New World experiences. This is the reason he writes down his experiences for posterity.
One of the strengths of this novel, is the authentic touch of details given to describe the colonial period. For example, Greehow records what he ate at the mansion of a wealthy Montreal trader employed by the Northwest Company:

"I returned reluctantly to the busy streets, but it turned out that William Mackenzie lived in a pleasant modern house with a walled garden, about ten minutes' walk from the city, at the western end of Jean-Baptiste Street. In his elegant dining-room that evening, I did justice to the first home-cooked dinner I'd had for seven weeks: river trout followed by beef dumplings followed by plum duff."

Now that is good fare, whatever plum duff could be!
When Greenhow finally returns to England, he doesn't return alone, as he married a Quaker from the Yonge Street community, a youngish woman with a pockmarked face, but flaming red hair he can't forget, and a compatible disposition.
Margaret Elphinstone has published several other novels, an anthology of garden verse, and a book on organic gardening. Her talent for digging out historical facts and her imaginative power make Voyageurs an enjoyable and memorable read, especially for those who want to learn more about Canadian history.

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