by Julie Birrell
In the author's endnote of The Horse's Shadow, Lawrence Scanlan tells us how "history should be remembered: in lives lived." In his latest novel, Scanlan brings us a vibrant slice of North American history through the life of spunky habitant heroine, Claire Vigere. Claire, a young girl with an uncanny gift for horse relations, sets off on a wild adventure spurred by her great love of two family horses, Beau Albert and Tibeau, after they've been sold to an American buying fresh Canadian "soldiers" for his country's civil war. It is easy to be swept up in Claire's journey, as she makes friends, confronts enemies, and 'lives' a little bit of North American history.
Scanlan deftly sets the scene of life in lower Canada in the 1860s, including many references to la belle langue, which his heroine speaks better than English. Although these translations can sometimes be unwieldy, the overall effect is authentic, and slips in a French lesson for readers as well. We are introduced to Claire, her beloved grandfather, (pFre-pFre), and her struggling habitant family through a traditional horse race on Missisquoi Bay. Claire is set to participate in the race in the guise of a boy, since it is not acceptable for girls to enter. She wins the race handily, and Scanlan's own love for horses is evident in the details of Claire's relationship with Beau Albert, a character endowed with more depth and detail than Claire's own mother or father.
The real drama begins, however, when Claire's father decides to sell his two best horses to Tip Weldon, an American horse trader, in order to avoid the possible repossession of the family farm. Claire's love for horses wins out over her love for family and home, and she stows away in Tip's wagon, eventually emerging at the end of a long voyage to participate in the American Civil War as a deaf-mute boy serving as a groom in the Northern Army. Here she meets Moses, a boy who is truly deaf, and who teaches her to sign. Through their friendship, we also learn of the story of African-Americans in the war, a testament to Scanlan's dedication to recreating history through a variety of experiences.
Although it seems unlikely that Claire could masquerade as both male and deaf for so long, her exploits are engaging and amusing. By embedding the details of history in the lively tale of Claire Vigere, Scanlan provides an opportunity for young readers to learn a great deal-almost without realizing it-that is useful for an appreciation of history.