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Clifford Jackman: Historical Fiction

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We're pleased that today we've got Clifford Jackman with a list of Canadian works of historical fiction. It's a good one. **Clifford Jackman writes: Some years back, I was writing a novel set in Victorian London and I wanted to do a little research—this was before Wikipedia. So, deciding to read some stories set in that time period, I picked up my copy of The Complete Sherlock Holmes. You can imagine my surprise when I found no descriptions of hansom cabs or gaslights or anything like that. Then it struck me: Doyle had no need to describe any of that stuff, because his audience had already known all about it. He would no more provide a detailed description of a hansom cab than a modern writer would describe a Honda Civic. There are many great challenges in writing a historical novel. You'll never get it all right, anachronisms will always creep in, but you're writing for a modern audience anyway, and what you're searching for is not authenticity but to create a particular impression for a particular kind of reader. What do you put in? What do you leave out? Fortunately, here in Canada we have a lot of great works of historical fiction for younger writers to study. In honour of the release of my debut novel, The Winter Family, and in no particular order, here are eight Canadian works of historical fiction worth checking out (with an emphasis on the Western).
The Winter Family
Excerpt

High summer night in Oklahoma. Warm winds that smelled of apple blossoms. Now and then a lightning bug winked on and drifted through the air. Quentin Ross caught one in his fist and held it there, with its radiance leaking between his fingers and reflecting in his shallow eyes. For a moment he rolled the lightning bug between his thumb and forefinger, and then he crushed it, smearing himself with its luminescence, and he smiled, wide and empty.
 
The Winter Family was camped in a stand of blackjack oaks. There was no fire but the moon was up, pushing the stars back into the darkness of the sky. Charlie and Johnny Empire lay on their sides, playing cards and bickering. Fred Johnson wrote in his little book and drank whiskey from a cup not much bigger than a thimble. Quentin wandered from tree to tree, humming to himself, soft and tuneless. The others tried to sleep, tucked between tree roots or curled in bedrolls like pill bugs. All of them, except for Augustus Winter.
 
He sat astride a pale horse, like Death, leaning back in his heavy saddle and smoking a cigarette in an ivory holder. The suit he wore was well tailored but growing threadbare. His straw-white
hair was cropped short and he had an extravagantly waxed mustache. His eyes were very light amber, almost yellow, the eyes of an eagle or a cat. Occasionally he would remove a watch from his pocket and turn it in the pale moonlight, watching as the second hand marched around, and around, and around. It is often observed that murderers do not look like murderers. No one said that of Augustus Winter.
 
A little after midnight Winter cocked his head. “They’re coming.”
 
“I don’t hear anything,” Quentin said.
 
But soon they all did. The sleepers were kicked into wakefulness, the lantern shuttered, weapons drawn, instructions whispered.
 
O’Shea and two of his hands came around the bend and rode up to the camp. Everyone relaxed. O’Shea pulled up his horse, unstrapped a bag tied to his saddle, and tossed it to Quentin.
 
“I’d be grateful if you count it now,” O’Shea said.
 
Quentin knelt down, opened the sack, and rifled through the bills quickly. Then he stood, his knees creaking.
 
“Yes, it’s all there, as we agreed.”
 
“Good,” O’Shea said and began to wheel his horse around.
 
“Now just a moment, Mister O’Shea,” Quentin called out.
 
“Please, just a moment more.” Quentin’s voice was very deep, melodious. He spoke slowly, as if he were thinking very carefully, or reciting poetry.
 
O’Shea turned back to him, reluctantly. Both men were around fifty, but O’Shea was a tall man with a healthy mane of gray hair, while Quentin was small and fine boned.
 
“We’ve run into some unexpected expenses . . . ,” Quentin began.
 
“Oh god damn you,” O’Shea said.
 
Quentin continued as if O’Shea had not spoken.
 
“. . . which were not included in the initial estimate of our—”
 
“Estimate?” O’Shea shouted. “We had a deal, you thieves.”
 
“Yeah,” Winter said. He did not speak loudly but all the men fell silent, and the bugs too, and the wind seemed to die down to nothing.
 
“Yeah. Thieves, Mister O’Shea. And worse.”
 
O’Shea looked at Winter and bore his gaze. That was something not every man could do. O’Shea was not like every man. Willpower radiated from him. And he was angry now. He looked at the dirty mob of killers under the trees, white trash and blacks and Mexicans, in their muddy boots and sweat-stiff dusters, thin and poor and dumb as nails. One of them was using baler twine as a rifle strap. He thought: Am I to let these men get the better of me? But then, it was only money.
 
“How much?” O’Shea asked. Quentin told him. O’Shea nodded and said, “The money will be ready when you get back. I trust that is all.” Not a question.
 
But Quentin said, “Just one more thing, Mister O’Shea! Please! One more thing. A member of our band has taken ill. He needs a doctor. We would be grateful if you could bring him back to town.”
 
“Oh for heaven’s sake,” O’Shea snapped, but they were already bringing the sick man forward, surprisingly small, wrapped up tightly in a stinking bedroll. O’Shea stood up in his stirrups and looked down. He frowned. The man was an Indian, but his skin had gone gray and seemed thin, as if his bones were likely to poke through at any moment. Greasy foam flecked around his lips and nose and the whites of his eyes were jaundiced, the color of egg yolk.
 
The little Indian regarded O’Shea with piteous weakness. O’Shea frowned in disgust.
 
“His name is Bill Bread,” Quentin said.
 
“One of you take him,” O’Shea said to his hands.
 
“Farewell, Mister O’Shea,” Quentin called, and tipped his hat.
 
“Take good care of Mister Bread!”
 
The Winter Family laughed as the hands threw Bill Bread over the neck of one of their sturdy ponies and rode off, holding their noses. They all laughed, except for Augustus Winter, who watched O’Shea’s horse in the dim moonlight, until it was lost in the trees.

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Why it's on the list ...
"Tracing a gang of ruthless outlaws from its birth during the American Civil War to a final bloody showdown in the Territory of Oklahoma, The Winter Family is a hyperkinetic Western noir and a full-on assault to the senses." Intrigued yet? Craig Davidson reports that this novel "lit my synapses up like a pinball machine."
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The Englishman's Boy
Why it's on the list ...
Two historical novels in one, this book tells the story of a legendary cowboy who rides through Montana to the Canadian plains in pursuit of stolen horses, and a screenwriter commissioned to tell the story in 1920s Hollywood. Both settings feel vividly true, and the theme of the construction of history is particularly appropriate for an historical novel.
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Half-Blood Blues
Why it's on the list ...
Largely set in Berlin and Paris in the early stages of the Second World War, Half-Blood Blues tells the story of black jazz musicians caught in Europe during an extremely dangerous time to be a black jazz musician in Europe. The novel’s consideration of genius and jealousy is timeless.
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The Outlander
Why it's on the list ...
Nineteen-year-old Mary Boulton, having murdered her husband and pursued by her two brothers-in-law, flees west. She encounters a variety of bizarre characters, dramatic weather, and sublime landscapes. Boulton is trembling on the edge of madness and the novel feels almost Gothic in its approach. A very memorable read.
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The Orenda
Excerpt

CHASTISEMENT
 
They are beautiful people. I cannot ignore this fact. I write all of this down in the bound book I’ve carried tucked in my robe, one of the very few comforts I possess. To bring Jesus into the lives of these people is one mission. To report my findings back to my Superior in Kebec, who will in turn send it to his back home in France, is the other. Ultimately, I write of my journeys and my struggles and my suffering to glorify You. I will die here for You if this is what is requested of me.
These sauvages, they are shameless in their lack of modesty. When the fire burns hot, the children run naked around the longhouse and the women strip down to their waist. The men often walk around in simple breechclouts, and a number of times I’ve witnessed couples I am quite sure aren’t married embracing and then slipping away. The light of the fires, the thick smoke, the primal grunts of passion, the laughing children, the chatter of this language that I struggle so hard to master, I think I might very well be in one of Dante’s rings.
I record in my journal that each longhouse is the length and width of a small ship, and families related through the women reside within. As far as I can tell, eight or ten families, each with its own fire, fill these residences with the noises of humanity. I’ve estimated anywhere from forty to sixty souls in each longhouse, and I believe there to be at least fifty longhouses in this community. What’s more, I’ve been told that this village is just one of many in what I’ve termed Huronia, this land they call Wendake. While it’s possible to walk the length of Huronia in just a few days, I’ve learned that five separate and yet unified nations populate this fertile country, each with its own name. The people I reside with call themselves the Bear, and the other nations are named Rock and Cord and Swamp and Deer. Their sworn enemies, the Iroquois, also consist of five nations, but it seems that the Huron refer to them collectively as Haudenosaunee in their language.
The Huron are, as Champlain so duly noted a number of years ago, the key traders in a very large geography, controlling their business with the keen eye of a banker. They dominate the trade of tribes as disparate as the Montagnais to the north and the Neutral to the south. Their main currency is the vast quantity of corn that they grow each summer. I’m fascinated to watch how their different systems work as time allows, but from what I can see, they trade their produce with the Algonquin and the Nipissing for those hunting people’s furs, mainly beaver, which the Huron then paddle all the way to New France in the summer, where they trade those furs for staples such as iron axes and copper kettles and all form of glass beads, which to the Huron are as valuable as gold. They in turn bring back these treasures from New France and again trade them with their neighbours to the north and south. Yes, they are indeed the lynchpin to the economy of this new world.
Now that it’s winter, each family sleeps up off the ground on raised platforms, mother on one end, father on the other, children squeezed in between. They are smart enough to peel the bark from the wood they burn but it’s still sometimes so smoky that my eyes are often irritated. These longhouses are truly a wonder, like giant beehives woven together with saplings and covered in sheets of bark. Up in the rafters hang corn and beans and squash and tobacco and dried fish and all manner of food that I’ve never seen before. The Huron winters are clearly the time of relaxation and enjoyment. All day long the mothers play with their children, and the dozen or so dogs that wander through the longhouse are treated as members of the family as well, eating from their hosts’ kettles and sleeping in their beds, and all this madness of life surrounds me while the men stand in groups, taking turns visiting one another’s longhouses to talk and laugh and smoke pipes of tobacco.
The men are tall, some nearly my size. I’ve always towered over my companions in France. Wasn’t it the dear Bishop who nicknamed me the Brittany Giant? But these ones have a musculature that’s impressive, taut stomachs and strong arms, their brown, hairless skin in the winter firelight like oil paintings that have come alive. Some have their women pluck and shave the hair from both sides of their heads with sharpened and intricately decorated clamshells, leaving a thick brush of it running down the centre that they grease until it stands on end. An ancient sailor on the miserable voyage over from the old world to this new one regaled all of us with his experiences in this land, going so far as to claim he was the one to first name these people Huron, wild boars, for how he thought the men’s hair bristles like a pig’s. Other warriors grow their hair long and shave off only one side of it, which leaves them looking frightening and half-mad. On the warpath, Bird and his soldiers paint their faces in red and yellow and black ochre. I am sure this was meant to stir the same fear in their enemies that it did in me.
The women are as striking as the men with their long shining black hair, their white smiles flashing against brown skin. They go to great lengths to decorate themselves, sometimes spending hours chattering as they braid feathers and tiny painted clay beads into one another’s hair. Some of them have even tattooed their bodies with the images of animals, and these women seem held in high regard. Many of them love to flirt with me, regardless of their age. They smile coyly, and the younger ones think nothing of touching my hand or my arm, as if to prove to themselves that I’m indeed real. Word has gotten out that my vows prevent me from being with women, but obviously their simplicity prevents them from understanding the complexity of Catholicism. As I preached the other day, after much confusion in our mutual understanding, a man dared to ask me if I preferred boys, causing all the others to laugh hysterically. This childlike comprehension of the world will be both my greatest test and a wonderful tool. I’ll treat them as I once treated young children back in France when I was given the rather odious mission of teaching them the catechism.
These first ten days, I feel like a prisoner in this glowing longhouse filled with smoke. Bird is clearly an important man in this community. I’ve watched people bring him gifts and come to visit now that he’s back. And I understand the crowds come as much to see me as they do Bird. I take this opportunity to try to bring a little of God’s light into this dark corner of the world. For months last year back in Kebec, I worked on learning the Huron language, a converted sauvage with the Christian name of Luke teaching me its guttural intricacies.
He explained that I had to begin to grasp the natural world around me if I were ever to conquer the language. The Huron, Luke said, don’t live above the natural world but as a part of it. The key to their language was to make the connection between man and nature. I scoffed at this. A language doesn’t exist that can’t be learned by rote. And You, Lord, have given us the natural world for our use and our governance. Man was not meant to grovel in the dirt with animals but to rise above them. I make note in my relations to be sent back in due course to you, my dear Superior, that this is a lesson paramount for the conversion of the sauvages. I had long ago proved myself masterful with languages. Thanks be to God, I’ve been given the gift of Latin and Greek, a little English, some Dutch. In fact, dear Superior, did you not choose me for this mission to New France because of my ability to learn new tongues?
Just one more reflection for now, something I find both fascinating and appalling. In matters of the spirit, these sauvages believe that we all have within us a life force that is similar, if you will, to our own Catholic belief in the soul. They call this life force the orenda. That is the fascinating part. What appals me is that these poor misguided beings believe not just humans have an orenda but also animals, trees, bodies of water, even rocks strewn on the ground. In fact, every last thing in their world contains its own spirit. When I pushed Bird about this, he explained it to me in a rather odd way. He told me of a recent hunting trip in which he pursued a deer for a long time. Eventually he caught up to and killed it. “My orenda overpowered its orenda,” he said. “The deer’s orenda allowed me to take it.” He then looked at me as if his words might explain with final clarity this strange belief of theirs. I have to admit, dear Superior, that I’m still left confused.
Today, a dozen of them sit on the ground in front of me, staring and whispering amongst themselves, watching my every move and study- ing me with such intensity that I begin to sweat. Those closest to me hold their noses or fan their faces as if I’m the one who reeks, despite their overpowering smells of smoke and hide and what I can only describe as lustful intention. A couple of young women sitting at my feet try to peer up my cassock and then laugh as they mimic me blessing myself. An old man near the wall sits with a rigid back and his arms crossed, his thin lips scowling.
Like a child struggling for words, I slowly begin with the holy lamb. But there is no such thing as a lamb in the world of these people, and so Jesus becomes a fawn, a fawn whose blood is spilled so that we might live eternally. One heckler, an old woman, says loudly that the thought of fawn’s blood makes her hungry in this winter when fresh meat is scarce, and why do I torture her so? The others laugh at this. I’ve learned quickly that they laugh often, even at the most inappropriate times.
“If you take the fawn that is Jesus into your life,” I say slowly and then stop, straining for the words. “Your hunger. Gone.”
They scoff at this. “Not go hungry ever again?” one young man asks. “Does this mean we are dead?” Again there is more laughter and more discussion in their tongue, all of it too quick for me to understand.
When the crowd breaks down like this, usually after only a few minutes of my speaking, I know I’ve lost them. And that’s when I take my chalice and white cloth from my bag, and I use a bit of their sagamité, the horrid corn mush they call ottet that’s the staple of their diet in the winter and on travels. With this mush that I’ve flattened and dried and rounded into a small Host, I perform the most sacred of sacraments, lifting the chalice of melted snow water to Heaven so that it might become Your blood, raising the corn wafer to the sky so it transforms into Your flesh. This always silences them. They watch every little move with the eyes of hawks, all humour gone from their faces. Apparently, they’re more susceptible to my actions than to my words. I’ve made careful note of this, and wait patiently for the day when one of them will dare ask that he or she might also take a sip from the chalice, a nibble from my outstretched hand.
And yet there’s one who watches everything, who misses nothing, who doesn’t rudely interrupt when I preach. The young Iroquois girl hides beneath her sleeping robe, the girl I carried in my arms through that nightmarish day. In all the time we’ve been here, I can’t remember seeing her move from her perch above me in the bed beside Bird’s. I desperately hope that no ill intention exists in Bird’s loins. I find it very strange indeed that he’s the only one in the longhouse without a wife or family. Has the sauvage taken this girl to be a child bride? I will keep a close eye on this.
Early this morning I wake up in the dark, the wind blowing hard and Bird stoking the fire before sneaking out of the longhouse. Sleep beckons me back to its warmth and comfort, and it’s exactly this I know I must fight. I deserve neither of these as long as those around me remain heathen. Forcing myself up from my blanket, I kneel on the hard ground in the corner away from the fire in just my nightshirt, shivering through my morning prayers and contemplation. The girl troubles me. She troubles me deeply. The image of her stripping naked in the snow and offering herself to me is burned into my memory no matter how hard I try to erase it. It was her smile as she lay exposed there, asking me something I couldn’t comprehend. And then the wickedness of what she wished me to do dawned on me and forced my hand harshly across her mouth. I’ve already made careful note of this in my relations to dear Superior, which I can only hope will eventually reach him. The one conclusion I can draw from the depravity and brutality I’ve witnessed so far is that these beings, while certainly human, exist on a plane far lower than even Europe’s lowest caste.
I must remember, though, that all of us are God’s creatures. It is my mission to begin to help these poor souls rise up. The only way that their eternal souls might be saved is to accept Jesus, and to do this they must accept the Eucharist.
As if Christ Himself speaks directly to me on this frigid morning deep in this troubled land, I can see a vision materialize through the fog of my breath. The girl will become my first convert. I know this as surely as anything I’ve ever known. I remember her hand clutch- ing my crucifix as we walked the last miles and were accosted by the Huron sentries. The poor thing is in desperate need of redemption. Her tempting me is evidence. And I have been brought here to offer it to her.
When I am finished my morning vespers, I don my heavy black robe, noting that it’s saturated with my scent, the heavy stink of hard labour, the sour odour of sheer fear, and suddenly I feel self-conscious. I push this worry away. I must rise above the physical stains of humanity. My mission is more than the mundane facts of everyday life. I am more than that.
The sounds of sleep still echo through the longhouse as I climb the ladder to the young girl’s bed. It strikes me I don’t even know her name. No need. Soon enough, I will give her a Christian one. This will be a first for this territory, and word of it will travel far.
The girl lies on her back, tucked into a plush beaver robe. Her mouth is slightly open and I can’t help but smile to notice a thin string of spit runs from the side of it. She appears deep in sleep, and for this I’m thankful. She’s been through so much. We all have. Though Bird tied me to a tree out of sight of her family’s massacre, the sounds of struggle and screaming and slaughter still haunt me. The girl has gone mute for good reason. At her age she saw what no one should ever have to witness. The brutality these people are so willing to show their enemies astounds me.
I stare at the girl for a long time in the dim light, trying to understand her. I suddenly realize that I am trying to see her humanity. She’s not very beautiful, at least in comparison to the other children around her. She’d be better looking if not for the scars of some childhood disease that ravaged her face. Epidemics have begun to sweep through these people the last few years. I can only take this as a sign from God, a divine message. Any fool can see that when great change comes, the weak and the wicked will suffer. But the converted will live on.
I bless myself and whisper prayers of devotion and of gratitude and of guidance. I pray most fervently for the salvation of the soul of the young one sleeping in front of me. When I’m done, I raise the silver crucifix, a gift from my dear mother before departing on this voyage, and kiss it, then decide to lower it to the girl’s lips. After all, she’s already shown such fascination with the cross.
As Jesus touches her mouth, I’m shocked to see her eyes dart open. She raises her arms and pushes against my chest. Only now do I realize how closely I’m hovering over her. Her fists are a flurry of punches against me, and as I lean away, the crucifix in hand, she begins screaming. Panicked, I clap my hand over her mouth before she wakes the others. They’ll see me up here with her and will not understand. I plead with her in whispers to be quiet but her eyes only widen more. When she bites my hand, the pain shoots up my arm and I pull it shoulder slams into the unforgiving earth with the crack of what must be a bone breaking, the dull throb followed immediately by a sharp pain that sucks the breath from me. Bird stands above, his face contorted in anger, a knife in his hand. He raises it as he straddles my chest. I can see that he’ll do it, and my first reaction is regret that I’ve come all this way only to fail in converting a single sauvage. I close my eyes and whisper to Jesus for another chance, wait for the burn of the knife across my throat.
But it doesn’t come. Instead, I hear a strange voice, young but gravelly, speaking calmly, rationally, in Huron. It’s not quite human in tone, more like a small animal that’s learned to speak like a two-legged being. I pick up certain words. Spirit. Father. Illness. I slowly open my eyes. Bird stares at me, and, over his shoulder, up in the rafters on her sleeping perch, the girl peers down, talking to the back of Bird’s head, her thin face hovering above us in the early light that comes in from the smoke holes of the longhouse. Her face shimmers in the glow of morning and fire smoke so that I can’t help but think of her as a spirit, a ghost who’s appeared to intervene. Bird stands up, with one foot on either side of me. He says nothing, but his look tells me as surely as if he were screaming it. Never touch this girl again. He turns then and strides out. I look around and see the other families have risen from their beds and stand in a ring at a distance, staring. I look up to glimpse the strange sight of the girl once more, but already she’s disappeared.
For three days, no one visits or speaks to me. I assume this is Bird’s punishment. And so, unsure if I’m even allowed to leave the longhouse, I sit in a corner that offers some privacy and spend long hours in prayer and reflection. At least I attempt to, but a growing sense of isolation, of what by the second day I realize is malaise, sets in. Like snow built up on a roof too long, I fear I creak with too much weight. I fear I will col- lapse. My shoulder was dislocated in the fall, and the right arm hangs limply, now longer than the left. The pain is breathtaking. If only I had another Jesuit here to re-set it. If only I had another Brother here to speak with, another priest with whom I might seek confession and absolution. I try to sleep but it’s fitful, shot through with a deep-seated fear that I’ve gone so far into this bizarre and brutal land that even God has lost contact with me. away. The girl’s screams pierce my ears, ringing through the longhouse, and just under them I can hear the sounds of people awakening abruptly all around me, of men scuffling for their weapons. A rush of cold air sweeps up to send chills down my back and I hear feet scrambling up the ladder, then feel a hand grab my cassock and yank.
Now I’m falling, and I close my eyes and grit my teeth just as my shoulder slams into the unforgiving earth with the crack of what must be a bone breaking, the dull throb followed immediately by a sharp pain that sucks the breath from me. Bird stands above, his face con- torted in anger, a knife in his hand. He raises it as he straddles my chest. I can see that he’ll do it, and my first reaction is regret that I’ve come all this way only to fail in converting a single sauvage. I close my eyes and whisper to Jesus for another chance, wait for the burn of the knife across my throat.
But it doesn’t come. Instead, I hear a strange voice, young but gravelly, speaking calmly, rationally, in Huron. It’s not quite human in tone, more like a small animal that’s learned to speak like a two-legged being. I pick up certain words. Spirit. Father. Illness. I slowly open my eyes. Bird stares at me, and, over his shoulder, up in the rafters on her sleeping perch, the girl peers down, talking to the back of Bird’s head, her thin face hovering above us in the early light that comes in from the smoke holes of the longhouse. Her face shimmers in the glow of morning and fire smoke so that I can’t help but think of her as a spirit, a ghost who’s appeared to intervene. Bird stands up, with one foot on either side of me. He says nothing, but his look tells me as surely as if he were screaming it. Never touch this girl again. He turns then and strides out. I look around and see the other families have risen from their beds and stand in a ring at a distance, staring. I look up to glimpse the strange sight of the girl once more, but already she’s disappeared.
For three days, no one visits or speaks to me. I assume this is Bird’s punishment. And so, unsure if I’m even allowed to leave the longhouse, I sit in a corner that offers some privacy and spend long hours in prayer and reflection. At least I attempt to, but a growing sense of isolation, of what by the second day I realize is malaise, sets in. Like snow built up on a roof too long, I fear I creak with too much weight. I fear I will col- lapse. My shoulder was dislocated in the fall, and the right arm hangs limply, now longer than the left. The pain is breathtaking. If only I had another Jesuit here to re-set it. If only I had another Brother here to speak with, another priest with whom I might seek confession and absolution. I try to sleep but it’s fitful, shot through with a deep-seated fear that I’ve gone so far into this bizarre and brutal land that even God has lost contact with me.
What of the others? I set out from New France with the plan of reaching Huronia late last summer. I was promised that a group of Jesuits who were due to arrive soon from Normandy would follow if the season still permitted.
In the best of conditions the trip from Kebec to Huronia is a three- week-long act of brutality, back-breaking work of paddling and portaging great distances, which means lifting everything from the canoes and making multiple trips, sometimes of miles, through bogs or up steep embankments, half the weight of a man strapped to your back. Living daily with swarms of insects that sting and itch and bite, hoping for the short respite of rain and, when it comes, shivering in the downpours, then wishing for some sun again, despite this meaning the return of the insects. Starving even as the sauvages seem to grow stronger from the scarcity of food, waking before dawn each morning and bending their backs against the currents in their flimsy, wobbly craft until dark, smoking their wretched tobacco in place of meals. They grew more muscular as I began to wither.
But the worst aspect of my journey was certainly the Iroquois, enemies of us French. To get to Huronia, one must pass through their country. Yes, being hunched from dawn to dusk on scabbed and bloody knees, the painful monotony of paddling into wind and rain, never resting or stopping to eat until light faded, this was simply crushing. The abject fear, though, that I tried to constantly quell was of being surprised by an Iroquois raiding party. I did all that I knew to do. I tried to place myself in Your hands. And I am so sorry that, for a time, I failed.
I’d left New France last year with a small party of Algonquin who promised Champlain himself that they would deliver me safely to the Hurons. I forgive them now, as I write this to dear Superior in my book. After all, I admit I’m a weak paddler and despite my size, couldn’t carry nearly as much as them. I remember them grumbling and complaining amongst themselves for the ten days. One heathen even began to loudly suggest I was a demon in human form. But it’s when we came across a barely cold Iroquois campfire that the Algonquin made their decision. That afternoon, after they inspected the camp, silent and cautious as wolves, and just as I was relieving myself behind a clump of willow, they climbed into their canoes. They’d deposited my black cloth bag containing my chalice and diary and few personal possessions on the shore, along with a small sack of food. I emerged from the bush and watched as they paddled away at speed.
The more I shouted for them to come back, the faster they worked to get away. I quit only when it dawned on me they wouldn’t return and that my shouts might very well alert the Iroquois, who couldn’t be far away, to my presence.
The terror consumed me those first hours as I huddled behind that same clump of willow, peering out at the lake in hopes the Algonquin might return for me, pleading to You, Lord, that this not be the way I was to perish. Might not dying alone, slowly starving and going mad, lost in the tangle of forest as the mosquitoes ate me alive, be even worse than to die the death of a martyr at the vicious hands of the Iroquois? This morning, as I sit ignored in the corner of the longhouse, I truly come to understand that my life, and my death, are preordained, and I come to the understanding that fretting over all of this will not aid my mission but cripple it.
This third morning of chastisement, I kneel on the hard ground shivering, and I finally feel the fear that’s consumed me release and begin to lift from my back, a fear that’s burdened me since I first set foot in this foreign and desperate place. With my left hand, I force my right arm up the wall until it’s above my head, my shoulder braying its anguish. I whisper now to You as I throw my weight hard into the wall. I feel the ball popping into its joint again as I collapse. I fall to the floor and bite my hand to stop a scream from escaping and awaking the house.
I will die. We’ll all die. How many times have I narrowly escaped it in the past few months? The last few days? My death most probably will happen here in this foreign world, away from my family, at the hands of these people. So be it, Lord. So be it.

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Why it's on the list ...
Alternatively shockingly violent and surprisingly tender, The Orenda is a remarkably clear-eyed look at the heroic age of Canadian history, describing the war between the Iroquois and the Huron in Quebec and the 1600s.
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All True Not a Lie in It
Excerpt

My sister the whore is shown before all the Friends at Exeter Meeting like a grub spaded up. She stands at the centre of the room, and we all sit up on the benches round her to see. Sallie has got her confession prepared. She holds the paper before her face and talks as if she has got a mouthful of chewed potato. Unusual for her to talk so flat, she could run a blab-school if she liked. Heels-up Sallie, the boys say. Give her a tap and over she goes. Always the last to leave a bonfire or someone’s new barn in the dark.
 
I watch her tip back and forth on her famous heels. Her cap is slipping to one side, she tugs a curl out over her ear and lifts her eyes to see who is watching. Her fellow stands a few feet away looking out the window. I listen for words of interest but the only ones I catch are I was too conversant and fornication. She admits to all of it though it is evident enough to anyone who takes one look at her belly from the side. And everyone does look.
 
This is not usual Meeting. The air has a stunned feel as if a shot has just gone through it. The leaders have summoned all of the Friends. The benches are full. Even the Friends from the country farms have driven to town for it.
 
Daddy bursts into sad perspiring, his smell rises up like bread. He is set to get up and walk off. But Ma’s fingers tap upon little Neddy’s head, and so Daddy sets his jaw and keeps himself on the bench beside her. I slide my feet in circles. I want to laugh. My sister Bets creases her nose like a fox, and my oldest brother Israel does laugh under his breath.
 
—This is my confession.
 
So Sal finishes, but one of the widows near the door begins to swat her haunch and complain of ill winds. Bets chokes a giggle and whispers in Ma’s voice:
 
—Do you suffer from wind, my dear Danny? I give her a poke. Hill’s father carries on with Sallie and her fellow:
 
—In truth you were too conversant with one another before this day.
 
His voice is a wealthy man’s voice, every word rings like a coin falling. His face has its usual rosy look, but it becomes imaginative for a spell. I become imaginative also. I have not at this time witnessed any conversant doings at our house beyond those of the cows and bull, which are not entirely interesting, being so brief. At this time I am an innocent boy, but I am interested in many things in my mind.
 
Hill’s father asks Sallie will she now be married before all these Friends.
 
She says she will. Her fellow takes a sip of air through his teeth and says he will take her to wife.
 
Well it is done. Easy. Sal sneaks a look at us, she is thinking, That is that. Her eyes are bright. I hear her give her finger joint a pop, as is her way. Not a whore any longer. A wife. Safe, like magic. Well. God is not immune to performing tricks, perhaps He pops his finger joints also.
 
—And your confession? Plenty of time.
 
Hill’s father has turned to the fellow, his voice is kindly enough in asking. In his mind, we might sit here all day, but Sallie’s new husband says a brisk no thank you! He is not a Friend, he is an outsider. Perhaps he is not so certain he wishes to be inside the Boone family after all. But too late. He twists his feeble beard like a wick and squints, though I know he is not squint-eyed. He is keeping his eyes from his new wife’s lower half. Everyone else is still looking.
 
Hill’s father walks a few paces across the centre of the room and then turns in quick hope to Daddy:
 
—The truth is all that we seek in this life. Confession makes us new. You will confess now, Friend Boone? Daddy rises, just as Granddaddy had to when his own daughter did the same:
 
—My daughter was too conversant. This is true, yes. I am very sorry for allowing it.
 
For a moment Daddy stretches his neck like one prepared to say more. He looks at Hill’s father’s legs. His fingers twitch as if they might test the weight of that good heavy cloth suit. Daddy is a poor enough weaver himself, though he cannot understand why. He can see this cloth is good. He would like it not to be. The leader’s life has gone right, his suit says so. The deep grey of it defeats Daddy and he says:
 
—In the future we will be more c-careful.
 
His stammer noses out of its dark rabbit-hutch as it does at such times. His face goes hard, he touches the top of his head where his hair is gone. He has a love of escape and a love of being angry. See the ship thundering off from the grey English shore, young Daddy’s chin thrust over the bowsprit, away from other people and their ideas and money and churches to find a home for Granddaddy and himself and his brothers and sisters. It was meant to be better here.
 
Israel snorts. But Ma’s eyes are like glass, all breakable. She squeezes young Squire, who frowns, and Daddy thumps down onto the bench again and breathes against his fist. Ma is a true lover of God. She turns back to Sallie, who is trying to keep up her meek countenance as though she has been brained like a cow by Him. Bets laughs into the crook of her arm and makes out as though it is coughing, but I know.
 
I squint like the new husband, I turn my face upward to make everyone vanish. I have no liking for Meeting, the people in rows, the gap at the centre where Sallie and her fellow stand to be gawped at, and the long spells of quiet when everyone contemplates each
other’s sniffling. Bets is singing under her breath: Wind in my bowow-owels. She pokes me again but I pay her no heed. I am the first to see it. A bird at the highest window, a martin with a dark head and body. It flies straight in and sits for a moment on the sill until it flaps up to the rafters. I see every turn it makes, every shift of its wings. I see every feather of its body, and I see its small black eye.
 
A few hands rise and point. The martin rushes and flutters in the silence. It beats like a heart against the ceiling. Israel says:
 
—It will shit on Sal.
 
I believe Israel, I always do. He is sixteen years of age and has whiskery cheeks. I cannot help a look at them. I suppose I will have whiskers at some time. He crosses his arms and raises an eyebrow and gives a smirk. It is the first interest he has shown today. I look up with my mouth shut. Bets laughs loud this time:
 
—It will! Or piddle.
 
Daddy casts her a look from his loose eye and so she saws her cap strings back and forth between her teeth. I keep my eye on the bird. I feel Israel’s idle interest, he is following it too, he could have it down before it twitched.
 
The martin crosses the rafters back and forth, as if it is stitching them up with a thread. It lands on a window ledge and pants, it opens its beak but it says nothing. I know I could get that bird if I had my club. Or an arrow. Or a stick. I could make a path straight to its head from where I sit. Israel would see me do it.
 
At a cough from below, the martin dives straight down as if it has fallen but now swings up again to the ceiling. Its head and breast strike the roof again and again, all dull thuds. I want it to look at me. I am sorry for it. If Daddy would let me have a proper gun, I would shoot a little hole through the martin’s head and its suffering would be ended. I have clubbed plenty of birds dead. I know already that their eyes stay open but lose their wet shine, though their feathers do not for some time. I have held them until their bodies go all cold. It takes longer than you might imagine.
 
The martin bangs on. Hill’s father knows he has no grip on anyone’s brains now, and so he folds his hands and says Meeting is at an end for this day. Plenty of talk and hand-shaking as the rest make their way out, all looking quite relieved and able to be kindly again now that the marrying is done. I feel my Ma’s relief and Daddy’s grimness as the Friends nod to them. I am thinking to take this opportunity to ask Daddy about that gun when a finger arrives in my ear.
 
I stretch my foot backward to crunch William Hill’s toe. He pulls his finger out but not before he says with great cheer:
 
—A baby is going to come out of your sister. Out her stomach.
 
—Out her big arse, Hill. Like a chicken. I know you love to look at chicken’s arses.
 
I see Hill grin wide but I walk on with Bets behind our brothers. Once out the door, Israel turns and says loud:
 
—How can you stand and watch her go? And never speak to her again. Nothing about this wedding is right. It is nothing! None of these people can say we are wrong—
 
Ma hushes Israel as though he were young Squire. Daddy shakes his head but keeps quiet. Israel stalks off and my legs burn to follow. I know he will be going to fetch his gun, he will go up to the hills away from all of this, perhaps he will not come back until morning.
 
I am about to set off after him when Ma grips me and says:
 
—Hold little Neddy now. Stop him going into the road. And my young brother smiles, he is always smiling. Sweet Neddy. I lift him. He has a high smell like Granddaddy. I say:
 
—Now look.
 
I hold him up so he might see Sallie’s arse as it retreats to the cart in which it will travel to a new house to lay an infant. Cast out, married to her squinting outsider husband. Neddy calls:
 
—Gone. Gone.
 
—Yes.
 
I set him down, his face is perplexed but he does not cry. Ma and Daddy stand still looking after Sallie as though they do not know what to do with themselves now, but they go on looking as though some answer will appear. I turn as the bird flies out the open door of Meeting House, it leaves a pile of purple droppings on the threshold. The only answer we get.
 
-----
 
—Bets. Bets.
 
The night of the wedding I do not sleep, though the house is silent. Ma and Daddy are quiet in the loft upstairs. I think to get Bets out of the bed next to mine and Neddy’s, but she is heavy in her sleep and only rolls flat onto her back when I whisper. And I recall she threw shad guts over me the last time we went night fishing. So I tug the sheet over her face and leave her like a corpse.
 
I crawl past Sal’s empty bed. I know it is empty forever and this gives me an odd prickling about my heart. I feel my way along the floor and I find Israel’s bed empty also, which is a disappointment to me. He has not come back. But perhaps I will find him.
 
Once I am free of the house I go over the kitchen-garden fence with a pail, thinking to get worms. The moon and a few stars are showing themselves. I trot over the Owatin Creek bridge and down towards the river, I can hear its quiet rush. For a moment I am quite happy.
 
A thick rustling comes out of the night before I get to the water. I say:
 
—Israel?
 
A shadow crashes from the birches and snatches my arm. My happiness peels away from me.
 
—Are you fishing, Dan? I thought you might come out. I will go with you.
 
It is not Israel, it is William Hill. His mouth smells of iron, I know he is smiling in the dark, as if he has eaten my happiness. He is only one year older than I am. He sits before me in my Uncle James’s school and turns about to breathe on me with this breath. Sometimes he whispers answers at me if he thinks I do not know them. I do not listen, I would rather sit blindfolded on the onelegged stool in the corner than listen to him. Uncle James is always sorry for punishing me and gives me sweets at home later.
 
But Hill has money, it tumbles from his pockets, he is careless with it. Sometimes he gives me some of his money for a dead squirrel or a walk with me up the creek to a fishing place. His pleased face over the fence or around the edge of the door. I say:
 
—You do not know where I am going.
 
—To your granddaddy’s? I do not mind. I would like a look inside his house. Does he keep whores in all the rooms?
 
And again I run, again he follows me. He thinks he knows where I will go but he does not. I take a long winding way over the fields. I will not go to Granddaddy’s, though I cannot think of anywhere else in particular. I only want to run Hill until he is too tired to go on. I race through dark pasture and corn and flax until the moon ducks in back of the clouds and I can only make my way by knowing the fields in my mind, not by seeing them.
 
I run in grass up to my knees for some time. Soon enough the back of my hand catches a farm fence, all rough split rails. I know it is the Blacks’ fence and I know they all have the summer fever. It has given Ma something safe to talk about with the other women. Well, I have no care for sickness. I am sick worse of William Hill.
 
I follow along the fence towards the yard. A horse has got out of the stable and is standing by the front step. I put my hand over its soft nostrils as I pass, it puffs in my palm. I will find the root cellar and hide there with the turnips until Hill goes. But I hear him lumping along into the yard and so I go up the front step of the house. I find the door, the sick-rope is knotted on the latch, but I hear Hill talking to the horse as if to me: Where are you? And so I go in.
 
In the thicker dark of the room I stand, keeping myself still. I am not afraid, I am afraid of nothing. I hold my breath in. A curious noise comes from across the floor, a rattle.
 
I pick my way over the floor to the far wall, but soon enough Hill’s breath is on the back of my head and I stop. He says:
 
—Go on.
 
—Do you want to catch it?
 
—Do you?
 
The Blacks have only daughters. One of the youngest lies beneath the open window hot as a pie, her teeth clacking and her eyes bound up with a white cloth to save them from the fever. I lean closer to see. Hill shoulders me down beside her and takes up a lock of her hair, then presses the end of it into my ear. In his father’s low kindly Meeting tones again, he whispers that Molly Black and I are now married till death do us part.
 
—Kiss her. Hug her.
 
My brother Israel told me at one time that sick hair will lay bad eggs in your ears. I do not know if this is true but the hair pricks me horribly. I make my shoulders stiff. I do not wish to wake the sick girl. Though I will not have Hill think me a coward. I bend and put my lips to Molly’s burning cheek. Her teeth rattle on. I laugh and roll away but Hill says then reasonably:
 
—Or breed her. I will watch.
 
—No.
 
—Go on, Dan. I am trying to help you. I will save you from whoring, you will need a wife.
 
—No.
 
—Dan.
 
I jab him and again I say:
 
—No.
 
He sighs up another lungful of helpfulness. Molly’s teeth give a great rattle and I reach out to cover her mouth. Hill bends with his face big and close:
 
—I want to see what you will do now.
 
I break free of his iron breath, I fly out the door and this time he cannot keep up. I run as the stars watch blinking. This time I will run for ever.
 
-----
 
 
My chest burns but I pound on and do not stop. The moon is up now, and I run back to the river by another way, past some cabins of a few of the praying Indians who come to Meeting. I see the dull white of two of their ponies in a grassy patch, I smell the smoke of their fires. A door opens, but I keep on. I skirt round a field. I will run up the river, farther than I have ever gone, perhaps farther than anyone has gone.
 
I hear the river at last. As I am crouched on the bank to catch my breath, a short low call comes. It is not a bird, I know.
 
I crawl along a way until I hear a small splashing. Someone is just upstream, stepping into the water. I see how tall he is. His dark hair hides against the sky and trees, but his pale legs show. He has no breeches on and his shirt is loose and open. He takes up a thin stick and snaps its end. He turns his face.
 
Israel. He has seen me already, I know, but now he is looking up the bank behind him, where the sound of light steps moves away into the woods. I say low:
 
—Is that a deer? Will you get it?
 
I know he could get it easy if he wished to. I have followed him plenty of times in the early morning, I have seen the way his eye roams in a dark, lazy fashion over the dawn sky until at once it goes still and he shoots. He can get jays and crows, and sometimes deer. He does not know all the times I follow him. But sometimes he catches me out and shows me the way to look for the marks of deer hooves on grass, or for their droppings, or their hair snagged on branches. When he is home in the evening, he often lets me measure out his powder. Four times he has let me scrape his deer hides. Twice he has let me shoot squirrels with his gun. He gave me an old broken barrel without a stock, I have it beneath the pallet of my bed. I dream of it, though it is unsatisfactory dreaming. I would like to be as good a shot as Israel. He is Daddy’s favourite, and Daddy has set him free to hunt. He will not mind the bellows in the forge or work the looms at any rate, he goes where he pleases and has no care for what anybody says. He cares only for hunting and getting away from the town. He has shown me how to hide my steps and keep my weight even on my feet and go silent. I know the deer traces no one else but Israel has seen, and some he has not seen. But I do not know what he does at night.
 
With the water rushing round his legs he looks at me. He says very quiet:
 
—No deer here. What are you doing about tonight, Danny? I do not wish to tell him about Hill and little sick Molly Black. I say:
 
—Hunting. What is it then, that noise?
 
He raises his head. He spikes a fish with his stick, its body gives a brief shine in the moonlight as he turns it in the air. In his calm fashion he says:
 
—Hunting, are you? With what? Only fish here. And you. A ball rises into my throat. He knows about every animal and where it goes and how to find it. Everything is easy for him. I say:
 
—Where have you been? You have not been here long, you only have one fish. Did you hunt already? What did you get?
 
He turns and his face goes silvery where the moon catches it. I say:
 
—Why are you out again? You are always leaving your bed. Come on, we can get a deer. I will help.
 
But he says nothing. He pulls the shad off his stick and goes on fishing as if I am not here.
 
—Israel!
 
—Go home now, Dan.
 
He is walking up the river against the current, lifting his bare feet. I shout:
 
—I hate this place! I hate Exeter. I will get something without you.
 
He says nothing, he only looks up briefly, and I run on. I think of running again, but it is darker now, and alone I have no hope of any deer or any escape. I go home and thump dirty into bed beside little Neddy, who sleeps as hard as Bets does. Anger thumps in my blood, anger that Israel is so free and I am so pinned and so young. I am angry too at Hill for following me and wanting to see what I will do now. I see his big face. William Hill, trotting about in my mind as if it is his own field. Dunghole. I am ready to shoot anything. But as yet I have no gun.
 
Israel steals in sometime before dawn. I hear him settle into his bed and breathe slow. I will find out where he goes. I will follow him. I turn over and put my hands over my eyes, and I am struck by a thought of the blindfolded girl with her skin on fire and the prickle of her hair like hay.
 
I wonder whether I crept into her sick dreams, a little husband. Molly, I did catch your slow fever when I kissed you, though not badly. I am alive yet. But you know this. You dead know about me and what I have done.

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Why it's on the list ...
Hawley's debut novel (it just came out in February) is a literary re-telling of the life of Daniel Boone, whose exploits were mythologized by his friend and biographer while he was still alive. Hawley powerfully evokes the claustrophobia and the murky darkness of the frontier, where anyone could be hiding in the trees a few dozen yards away.
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The Sisters Brothers
Why it's on the list ...
Two brothers, Eli and Charles Sisters, are sent to kill a man named Hermann Kermit Warm. What makes this novel is special is not the painstaking research, but rather the creation, out of nothing, of a whole new language and a new world. We are told that the past is a foreign country, but too often in historical fiction the past seems just like today, with a few period signifiers added for color. The Sisters Brothers lets you know right from the beginning that you are in a place where people do things differently.
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Alias Grace
Excerpt

1859.

I am sitting on the purple velvet settee in the Governor's parlour, the Governor's wife's parlour; it has always been the Governor's wife's parlour although it is not always the same wife, as they change them around according to the politics. I have my hands folded in my lap the proper way although I have no gloves. The gloves I would wish to have would be smooth and white, and would be without a wrinkle.

I am often in this parlour, clearing away the tea things and dusting the small tables and the long mirror with the frame of grapes and leaves around its and the pianoforte; and the tall clock that came from Europe, with the orange-gold sun and the silver moon, that go in and out according to the time of day and the week of the month. I like the clock best of anything in the parlour, although it measures time and I have too much of that on my hands already.

But I have never sat down on the settee before, as it is for the guests. Mrs. Alderman Parkinson said a lady must never sit in a chair a gentleman has just vacated, though she would not say why; but Mary Whitney said, Because, you silly goose, it's still warm from his bum; which was a coarse thing to say. So I cannot sit here without thinking of the ladylike bums that have sat on this very settee, all delicate and white, like wobbly softboiled eggs.

The visitors wear afternoon dresses with rows of buttons up their fronts, and stiff wire crinolines beneath. It's a wonder they can sit down at all, and when they walk, nothing touches their legs under the billowing skirts, except their shifts and stockings. They are like swans, drifting along on unseen feet; or else like the jellyfish in the waters of the rocky harbour near our house, when I was little, before I ever made the long sad journey across the ocean. They were bell-shaped and ruffled, gracefully waving and lovely under the sea; but if they washed up on the beach and dried out in the sun there was nothing left of them. And that is what the ladies are like: mostly water.

There were no wire crinolines when I was first brought here. They were horsehair then, as the wire ones were not thought of. I have looked at them hanging in the wardrobes, when I go in to tidy and empty the slops. They are like birdcages; but what is being caged in? Legs, the legs of ladies; legs penned in so they cannot get out and go rubbing up against the gentlemen's trousers. The Governor's wife never says legs, although the newspapers said legs when they were talking about Nancy, with her dead legs sticking out from under the washtub.

It isn't only the jellyfish ladies that come. On Tuesdays we have the Woman Question, and the emancipation of this or that, with reform-minded persons of both sexes; and on Thursdays the Spiritualist Circle, for tea and conversing with the dead, which is a comfort to the Governor's wife because of her departed infant son. But mainly it is the ladies. They sit sipping from the thin cups, and the Governor's wife rings a little china bell. She does not like being the Governor's wife, she would prefer the Governor to be the governor of something other than a prison. The Governor had good enough friends to get him made the Governor, but not for anything else.

So here she is, and she must make the most of her social position and accomplishments, and although an object of fear, like a spider, and of charity as well, I am also one of the accomplishments. I come into the room and curtsy and move about, mouth straight, head bent, and I pick up the cups or set them down, depending; and they stare without appearing to, out from under their bonnets.

The reason they want to see me is that I am a celebrated murderess. Or that is what has been written down. When I first saw it I was surprised because they say Celebrated Singer and Celebrated Poetess and Celebrated Spiritualist and Celebrated Actress, but what is there to celebrate about murder? All the same, Murderess is a strong word to have attached to you. It has a smell to it, that word—musky and oppressive, like dead flowers in a vase. Sometimes at night I whisper it over to myself. Murderess, Murderess. It rustles, like a taffeta skirt across the floor.

Murderer is merely brutal. It's like a hammer, or a lump of metal. I would rather be a murderess than a murderer, if those are the only choices.

Sometimes when I am dusting the mirror with the grapes I look at myself in it, although I know it is vanity. In the afternoon light of the parlour my skin is a pale mauve, like a faded bruise, and my teeth are greenish. I think of all the things that have been written about me—that I am an inhuman female demon, that I am an innocent victim of a blackguard forced against my will and in danger of my own life, that I was too ignorant to know how to act and that to hang me would be judicial murder, that I am fond of animals, that I am very handsome with a brilliant complexion, that I have blue eyes, that I have green eyes, that I have auburn and also brown hair, that I am tall and also not above the average height, that I am well and decently dressed, that I robbed a dead woman to appear so, that I am brisk and smart about my work, that I am of a sullen disposition with a quarrelsome temper, that I have the appearance of a person rather above my humble station, that I am a good girl with a pliable nature and no harm is told of me, that I am cunning and devious, that I am soft in the head and little better than an idiot. And I wonder, how can I be all of these different things at once?

It was my own lawyer, Mr. Kenneth MacKenzie, Esq., who told them I was next door to an idiot. I was angry with him over that, but he said it was by far my best chance and I should not appear to be too intelligent. He said he would plead my case to the utmost of his ability, because whatever the truth of the matter I was little more than a child at the time, and he supposed it came down to free will and whether or not one held with it. He was a kind gentleman although I could not make head nor tail of much of what he said, but it must have been good pleading. The newspapers wrote that he performed heroically against overwhelming odds. Though I don't know why they called it pleading, as he was not pleading but trying to make all of the witnesses appear immoral or malicious, or else mistaken.

I wonder if he ever believed a word I said.

When I have gone out of the room with the tray, the ladies look at the Governor's wife's scrapbook. Oh imagine, I feel quite faint, they say, and You let that woman walk around loose in your house, you must have nerves of iron, my own would never stand it. Oh well one must get used to such things in our situation, we are virtually prisoners ourselves you know, although one must feel pity for these poor benighted creatures, and after all she was trained as a servant, and it's as well to keep them employed, she is a wonderful seamstress, quite deft and accomplished, she is a great help in that way especially with the girls' frocks, she has an eye for trimmings, and under happier circumstances she could have made an excellent milliner's assistant.

Although naturally she can be here only during the day, I would not have her in the house at night. You are aware that she has spent time in the Lunatic Asylum in Toronto, seven or eight years ago it was, and although she appears to be perfectly recovered you never know when they may get carried away again, sometimes she talks to herself and sings out loud in a most peculiar manner. One cannot take chances, the keepers conduct her back in the evenings and lock her up properly, otherwise I wouldn't be able to sleep a wink. Oh I don't blame you, there is only so far one can go in Christian charity, a leopard cannot change its spots and no one could say you have not done your duty and shown a proper feeling.

The Governor's wife's scrapbook is kept on the round table with the silk shawl covering it, branches like vines intertwined, with flowers and red fruit and blue birds, it is really one large tree and if you stare at it long enough the vines begin to twist as if a wind is blowing them. It was sent from India by her eldest daughter who is married to a missionary, which is not a thing I would care to do myself. You would be sure to die early, if not from the rioting natives as at Cawnpore with horrid outrages committed on the persons of respectable gentlewomen, and a mercy they were all slaughtered and put out of their misery, for only think of the shame; then from the malaria, which turns you entirely yellow, and you expire in raving fits; in any case before you could turn around, there you would be, buried under a palm tree in a foreign clime. I have seen pictures of them in the book of Eastern engravings the Governor's wife takes out when she wishes to shed a tear.

On the same round table is the stack of Godey's Ladies' Books with the fashions that come up from the States, and also the Keepsake Albums of the two younger daughters. Miss Lydia tells me I am a romantic figure; but then the two of them are so young they hardly know what they are saying. Sometimes they pry and tease; they say, Grace, why don't you ever smile or laugh, we never see you smiling, and I say I suppose Miss I have gotten out of the way of it. My face won't bend in that direction any more. But if I laughed out loud I might not be able to stop; and also it would spoil their romantic notion of me. Romantic people are not supposed to laugh, I know that much from looking at the pictures.

The daughters put all kinds of things into their albums, little scraps of cloth from their dresses, little snippets of ribbon, pictures cut from magazines—the Ruins of Ancient Rome, the Picturesque Monasteries of the French Alps, Old London Bridge, Niagara Falls in summer and in winter, which is a thing I would like to see as all say it is very impressive, and portraits of Lady This and Lord That from England. And their friends write things in their graceful handwriting, To Dearest Lydia from your Eternal Friend, Clara Richards; To Dearest Marianne In Memory of Our Splendid Picnic on the Shores of Bluest Lake Ontario. And also poems:

As round about the sturdy Oak
Entwines the loving Ivy Vine,
My Faith so true, I pledge to You,
'Twill evermore be none but Thine, Your Faithful Laura.

Or else:

Although from you I far must roam,
Do not be broken hearted,
We two who in the Soul are One
Are never truly parted. Your Lucy.

This young lady was shortly afterwards drowned in the Lake when her ship went down in a gale, and nothing was ever found but her box with her initials done in silver nails; it was still locked, so although damp, nothing spilt out, and Miss Lydia was given a scarf out of it as a keepsake.

When I am dead and in my grave
And all my bones are rotten,
When this you see, remember me,
Lest I should be forgotten.

That one is signed, I will always be with you in Spirit, Your loving 'Nancy', Hannah Edmonds, and I must say the first time I saw that, it gave me a fright, although of course it was a different Nancy. Still, the rotten bones. They would be, by now. Her face was all black by the time they found her, there must have been a dreadful smell. It was so hot then, it was July, still she went off surprisingly soon, you'd think she would have kept longer in the dairy, it is usually cool down there. I am certainly glad I was not present, as it would have been very distressing.

I don't know why they are all so eager to be remembered. What good will it do them? There are some things that should be forgotten by everyone, and never spoken of again.

The Governor's wife's scrapbook is quite different. Of course she is a grown woman and not a young girl, so although she is just as fond of remembering, what she wants to remember is not violets or a picnic. No Dearest and Love and Beauty, no Eternal Friends, none of those things for her; what it has instead is all the famous criminals in it—the ones that have been hanged, or else brought here to be penitent, because this is a Penitentiary and you are supposed to repent while in it, and you will do better if you say you have done so, whether you have anything to repent of or not.

The Governor's wife cuts these crimes out of the newspapers and pastes them in; she will even write away for old newspapers with crimes that were done before her time. It is her collection, she is a lady and they are all collecting things these days, and so she must collect something, and she does this instead of pulling up ferns or pressing flowers, and in any case she likes to horrify her acquaintances.

So I have read what they put in about me. She showed the scrapbook to me herself, I suppose she wanted to see what I would do; but I've learnt how to keep my face still, I made my eyes wide and flat, like an owl's in torchlight, and I said I had repented in bitter tears, and was now a changed person, and would she wish me to remove the tea things now; but I've looked in there since, many times, when I've been in the parlour by myself.

A lot of it is lies. They said in the newspaper that I was illiterate, but I could read some even then. I was taught early by my mother, before she got too tired for it, and I did my sampler with leftover thread, A is for Apple, B is for Bee; and also Mary Whitney used to read with me, at Mrs. Alderman Parkinson's, when we were doing the mending; and I've learnt a lot more since being here, as they teach you on purpose. They want you to be able to read the Bible, and also tracts, as religion and thrashing are the only remedies for a depraved nature and our immortal souls must be considered. It is shocking how many crimes the Bible contains. The Governor's wife should cut them all out and paste them into her scrapbook.

They did say some true things. They said I had a good character; and that was so, because nobody had ever taken advantage of me, although they tried. But they called James McDermott my paramour. They wrote it down, right in the newspaper. I think it is disgusting to write such things down.

That is what really interests them—the gentlemen and the ladies both. They don't care if I killed anyone, I could have cut dozens of throats, it's only what they admire in a soldier, they'd scarcely blink. No: was I really a paramour, is their chief concern, and they don't even know themselves whether they want the answer to be no or yes.

I'm not looking at the scrapbook now, because they may come in at any moment. I sit with my rough hands folded, eyes down, staring at the flowers in the Turkey carpet. Or they are supposed to be flowers. They have petals the shape of the diamonds on a playing card; like the cards spread out on the table at Mr. Kinnear's, after the gentlemen had been playing the night before. Hard and angular. But red, a deep thick red. Thick strangled tongues.

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Why it's on the list ...
In 1843, Grace Marks and James McDermott were convicted of murdering two people. McDermott was hanged while Grace was sentenced to life in prison. The depiction of 19th century prisons and asylums are disturbing and detailed, as is the life of a domestic servant. Finally, the ultimate mystery (did she do it, and if so why?) is very engaging. Despite having won the Giller Prize, I think this novel is often overlooked. Check it out if you haven't read it.
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