This is an ideal work for the airport bookstore - a snappily written, fast-paced piece of historical fiction that would make an enjoyable read for the Japanese tourist, the American business traveller or, dare I say it, the politician who happens to be "just visiting" and needs to bone up on his Canadian history.
It is a book set in the West and based on the life of Michael Mountain Horse, a high-school teacher born to a Blackfoot mother and a British immigrant father, and the great-great-grandson of the famous fur trader, explorer and mapmaker David Thompson. Mountain Horse is a sort of Canadian Everyman who has history flowing through his veins, and Gillmor taps those veins to depict the scale and grandeur of Canada's past.
He supplements the narrative of Mountain Horse's life with sketches and profiles of an impressive array of historical figures, including Thompson, Sir John A. Macdonald, Louis Riel, Guy Weadick (founder of the Calgary Stampede), Mackenzie King and Norman Bethune, to name a few. Through Mountain Horse, the reader goes off to the First World War, gets a taste of postwar Paris (though we don't meet Hemingway, Fitzgerald or Morley Callaghan), winds up in Hollywood in the Roaring Twenties and returns to Canada just in time to get whacked by the Great Depression. And that only gets you through about half the book.
To squeeze all this into 400-odd pages is an ambitious undertaking. It takes a skilled hand to blend all those personalities and events into a workable book. Gillmor has created some finely rendered scenes, some engaging characters and some witty dialogue. It may all work for the person who is on the fly and looking for a point-and-shoot version of Canada's past.
But if you've lived in the West, worked there, studied its past and acquired a sense of the place and its people, the book doesn't work as either history or fiction. Start with Michael Mountain Horse. Gillmor refers to him throughout as an Indian, but he has an aboriginal mother and a white father. That would make him, in the parlance of the times, a half-breed, a true outsider who doesn't belong on the reserve and is not accepted by the dominant white society.
You can't make good fiction out of bad history
The author has Michael and his brother, Stanford, growing up in a utopian agricultural settlement founded by misguided English aristocrats - a real place called Cannington that was located in southeastern Saskatchewan. But a few pages later, the boys are attending Sunday service with their mother, Catherine, at a small, white Methodist church in the foothills of the Rockies, and the family is living on a ranch near Cochrane, Alta., west of Calgary.
Now Cannington and Cochrane are about 800 kilometres apart, but this detail is of no consequence because Gillmor has to keep the story moving. So he relocates the family, without explanation, to the foothills ranching country so we can meet the flamboyant promoter Guy Weadick and be treated to a sketch of the very first Calgary Stampede.
Catherine Mountain Horse grew up in a Blackfoot camp in the late 19th century, when the buffalo were disappearing and the days of freedom ending for the Plains Indians. Her father, conveniently enough, is a close associate of Crowfoot, so we get a sketch of that wise, magnificent and courageous chief.
Gillmor places Crowfoot and his starving followers on the Missouri River in 1881, chasing the last of the dwindling herds of buffalo. That would be four years after the Blackfoot signed Treaty Seven and surrendered control of what is now southern Alberta. By 1881, they were living on reserves and surviving on meagre government rations. Furthermore, he has them preyed upon by whisky traders in the spring of 1882, about eight years after the North-West Mounted Police had rid the Prairies of those despicable creatures.
The most extended piece in the book is a profile of David Thompson, a foundational figure in the creation of the Canadian West and the catalyst who sets Gillmor's story in motion. Thompson arrived in 1784 as a 14-year-old Hudson's Bay Co. apprentice, stationed at a post on the bay. Over the next 28 years, he travelled, traded and explored between Hudson Bay and the Pacific, covering about 80,000 kilometres. He met dozens of native bands and tribes, learned two of their languages (Cree and Blackfoot), married a pubescent Métis woman named Charlotte Small and made celestial observations for latitude and longitude wherever he went.
After leaving the West in 1812, he settled near Montreal and produced a map of the lands he had explored, all 1.2 million square miles of them. He lived to be 87, with wife at his side, but they had a tough old age. Thompson went bankrupt at 66, eked out a living as a surveyor and, when that dried up, began writing a narrative of this travels in the West. He died - poor, blind and obscure - on Feb. 10, 1857, and his manuscript went unpublished until 1916.
Thompson enjoyed a long, sprawling, remarkable life, but Gillmor compresses the story to the point where it resembles a paint-by-number version of the Sistine Chapel. Because he has squeezed so much into so little space, the author was compelled to rearrange events, arbitrarily and cavalierly, simply to keep the story moving.
So we have Thompson acquiring a smattering of Cree during his first posting at Churchill Factory when, in fact, Chipewyan Indians traded at that post. Gillmor punts Thompson straight from a winter at Churchill to a winter in a Peigan Indian camp on the Bow River, near present-day Calgary, neglecting the several years that elapsed in between and the stops he made at York Factory, Cumberland House, South Branch House and Manchester House. He has him speaking French in 1789, when Thompson had had only a fleeting acquaintance with a few French-Canadian traders at that point and did not master the language until after he had quit the HBC and joined the North West Company in 1797.
There are no hard and fast rules that say what you can or cannot do when writing historical fiction. But just as surely as you can't erect a solid house on a shaky foundation, you can't make good fiction out of bad history.
D'Arcy Jenish grew up in the grain-growing and coal-mining country of southeastern Saskatchewan. He is the author of Epic Wanderer: David Thompson and the Mapping of the Canadian West and Indian Fall: The Last Great Days of the Plains Cree and the Blackfoot Confederacy.
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