||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
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
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.