Hamlet tells Horatio that there may well be more things in the world than are dreamt of in your philosophy. The English philosopher Gilbert Ryle once pointed out, however, that you still ought not to put more things in your philosophy than there are in this world. That sums up my first difficulty with Blood Traitors.
The cover assures us that we are reading "The true [my italics] saga of families torn apart by the struggle for independence in revolutionary North America", as the two authors chronicle Hirtle's admittedly interesting family history during the period. Two groups of Palatine German farmers emigrate to South Carolina, take opposite sides during the Revolutionary War, and the losers end up in Nova Scotia. Emigration, crooked land agents, perilous voyages, settlement, revolution, war, and exile: all this makes for a thrilling family saga that re-enacts a collective experience-the prime material, that is, for creating engrossing historical fiction. If you tell it as a novel.
Since De Villiers and Hirtle have chosen not to do so, they stress instead the historicity of their account. The preface assures us that the "people portrayed herein lived the lives that we say they lived.were exiled, betrayed, lived, loved, and died as we say they did." Then follows the kicker: "the conversations and interior monologues have been imagined." A figure in Findley's Famous Last Words puts it well: "Everything is true here. Except the lies."
Proceed to Chapter Six in order to understand what is going on in this chronicle. Page 112 will give you a highly tendentious account of a backwoods political manoeuvre: "This cynical act of political manipulation, with its confusing mixture of truth, fiction, and collusion.." Turn back to page 109, and consider an account of a woman's sexual fantasies: "But what were those black eyes like when he reached for his woman? Was there a fire in him? What was he like in those intimate moments?"
Observe the problems nestled here. If the first selection is history, it seems to be history-as-polemic. The section is not "focalized", it is not an attempt to fit the world into the mentality of a character (as, for example, Donald Akenson often does in his portrait of Ogle Gowan in The Orangeman). It is meant to be read at face value, but seems useful only as a partisan account of a complex incident. Proceed to the second section. The first two sentences might work in an airport-rack bodice-ripper, but the flat unimaginativeness of the italicized passage leaves off where people's sexual fantasies start. The incident has no business in a history, and yet would fall flat in a novel. There lies the problem in this hybrid. It works neither as history nor as fiction.
Accept then these drawbacks. Accept that you are reading a text with anachronistic word usage (the OED informs us that "shrapnel" first appears in the language in 1807, "optimistic" in 1848, "recession", in the economic sense, in 1929), with revelations about the nature and frequency of sexual intercourse that simply would not have been noted in a family-viewing diary of this time. Accept, too, that this is a historical text that acknowledges a debt to Kenneth Roberts's novel Oliver Wiswell. These drawbacks need not stop you from having an informative read.
Unless you wanted to be informed about what is now Canada. Twenty-one chapters, eighteen in South Carolina, two in Europe, one in Nova Scotia. As much as in any James Oliver Curwood north-woods adventure novel, Canada is a place you come to in order to get away from history, not a place with an engrossing history of its own. Enough is known about UELs in general, and the Loyalist settlement of Nova Scotia to have given the writers the opportunity to flesh out any gaps in the family's own accounting of their history. Instead, and this practice cannot help but seem market-driven, the tellers of this tale find the terror and violence of Revolutionary America more engaging than the struggle to build community amid the place of exile.
I think that the Canadian portion of this shattered family complex-and any Canadian reading audience-deserves better treatment than this.
Dennis Duffy is a professor of English at Innis College, University of Toronto. One of his books is Gardens, Covenants, Exiles: Loyalism in the Literature of Upper Canada/Ontario. We believe, however, that he was not driven out of his home town, Louisville, Kentucky, by political persecution.