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In letters and in love, it’s the message that always counts

Detail from cover of Undelivered Letters to Hudson’s Bay Company Men on the Northwest Coast of America, 1830-57

This summer, expat Craig Taylor is rediscovering his homeland through the Canadiana collection of the Abbey Bookshop in Paris's Latin Quarter. This is the fifth instalment.

Recently I've been wandering around with a broken hard drive in my bag in the hopes of coming across one of those data-retrieval businesses where men in fashionable glasses say: "We might be able to recover your ancient e-mails." Even if I could get them back, many consist of little more than: "I'm online. Could you get on Skype?" An expat friend whose mother died recently gathered up all their correspondence. The mother preferred to send texts to the friend's phone, which had long since disappeared. Most remaining messages were bare, perfunctory: "Check your phone. I just texted you." The friend was left with next to nothing.

One of the most unexpectedly moving books I've encountered in this summer of Canadian reading is not particularly popular – its ranking currently hovers around 412,000 – and the title might put some off. Undelivered Letters to Hudson's Bay Company Men on the Northwest Coast of America, 1830-57 is a collection of correspondence, and although it's a properly footnoted academic book from UBC Press, the letters are anything but dry: They're startling, upsetting, sometimes funny, and they show much of the concern voiced by parents of faraway children today. There is a link from then to now in the tone, in the entreaties to return home: Don't forget us. Don't do anything stupid. Do you have any money you can send back?

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What the letters bring into sharp relief is the privilege any expat is afforded now: If anything goes wrong, I can be back within a day, I often tell friends and family. Back within a day would have been a mythic phrase to these people. See you later, they'd call out on the docks at Gravesend. And by later, I mean the next life.

Take this one: in May, 1833, Mr. John Flinn, a seaman in the HBC, was sent a note from a friend. "… old Mrs. Anderson is dead," the friend writes, "Mr. Ofield is dead. Thomas Caines the Wheat Chaff opposed to my House is dead … thare has been Seaveral deaths amongst the coal shippers. Old Mrs. Hunters Mother is dead." And, finally, as if things couldn't possibly get worse: "I have Loss'd my fine Gray Parrot. it got Poison'd." One of the tantalizing aspects of the letters, the editors Judith Hudson Beattie and Helen M. Buss note, "is that we are left to imagine the before and after … and in what we imagine we reveal our own predisposition." Unlike the novels I've been reading, the letters are unforgivingly austere.

Part of the reading experience includes embroidering around the edges, imagining the scenes: the way the stories expand. For instance, in 1815, Joseph Grenier joined the North West Company at the age of 18 and headed west. His parents back in Quebec kept contact only until 1826. Five years later, they decided to drop him a text – "This is the third letter that I am sending you," his father writes. He wants to let Joseph know his dad's hair "has gone quite white since you left us." Like most fathers, his love assumes the form of offering directions, so "… once you are at Montreal you could board a steamboat to take you to Sorel and once in Sorel you can get to Grand Yamaska and there you will easily find where I live. I live at Ruisseau des Chênes." After the letter, the editors step in with a simple explanatory note. "On 3 July, 1830, long before this letter was written … Joseph Grenier had drowned along with eight of his fellow countrymen." It's as sparse and as tragic as the sudden end of an Alice Munro story.

Maybe the Greniers would have taken cold comfort in the following words: "Parents imaginations build frameworks out of their own hopes and regrets into which children seldom grow, but instead, contrary as trees, lean sideways out of the 'architecture, blown by a fatal wind their parents never envisaged." The quote is taken from the next book on my stack, as far removed from Undelivered Letters as a text could be. If the emotion in Letters is inferred, Elizabeth Smart's By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, her 1945 account of her love affair with a fellow poet, is an explosion. (Author Angela Carter, reviewing it years ago in the Guardian, said it was "like Madame Bovary blasted by lightning.")

They're both in front of me now – one breaks your heart with restraint. Smart needs to be heard, needs an errant lover to pay attention. Her prodigal narrator returns to Ottawa and the "old gold of the October trees." She is frothing with love – "the one small word which I dared not utter, because jazz singers and hypocritical preachers … had so maligned it." Central Station is for anyone who needs to rediscover a way to describe the finest grain of a love affair. Life is so short, details matter, distances sting. Delivered or not, Smart's message to her lover needs to be made exceedingly clear: "Neither reason or sense or greed nor pity nor perspicacity nor worldly wisdom nor expediency nor filial duty gave my hand to yours," she writes. Her message: even in Ottawa one can love with a fiery intent. "No one can say I was carried away in that moment."

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