I’m delighted to welcome Ian Roberts with a guest post about his debut novel. Over to you, Ian…
Some stories seem to find us. They seek us out. My fascination with Etienne Brulé is one of those stories — since Grade 8 Canadian History. But crafting the story out of the raw material of my fascination took years.
A Land Apart is my first novel. Historical fiction creates two rivalling, but interconnected, demands. One, I needed the structure of the story to work. It had to compel the reader to want to know what happens next. Second, the story had to unfold within an historically accurate reality of New France in 1634.
Some aspects of that were relatively straight forward. What were the muskets of the day like? How invested was France with developing trade with the New World? By 1634 how were the Wendat reacting to the Jesuits? How active were the Iroquois in attacking Wendat trade routes to Quebec?
I could research most of that. The hardest part was attempting to understand the Wendat culture. Brulé was a white man but he had adopted the Wendat tribe as his own. And they had adopted him. For over twenty-five years he immersed himself in their way of life. The most delicate aspect of that culture to give expression to was their spiritual beliefs. These beliefs kept arising because of Father le Charon, the Jesuit, who lived with the Wendat and travelled with Brulé. The clash of beliefs needed to feel real and of course respectful of the Wendat spiritual view of the world.
I had an experience once that gave me, I think, an insight into the Wendat world view. At seventeen I flew into a remote lake in Manitoba and paddled for a week down the Bloodvein River into Lake Winnipeg.
At seventeen I lived in a raging, mix of anxiety, fear and rebellion. During the canoe trip the vast presence of the wilderness seeped into me. I quieted down inside. Then perhaps on the morning of the fifth day I didn’t so much awake as blossom out into an expansive connection. The various factions in my mind coalesced into an overwhelming sense of being contained by the forest around me. I felt whole and free.
That experience of connection — an experience of a less analytic, Cartisian, perception — stayed with me, more or less, for the rest of the trip. Certainly the memory of it stayed with me for years.
So when I had to imagine the Wendat experience of nature I drew on that. Of course I may have it all wrong. But I certainly felt their spirituality must embrace a more connective relation to nature than Descartes’s “the masters and owners of nature” that the West had embraced.
The more scientific mind of Europe gave us inventions that the indigenous tribes wanted the moment they saw them. Steel knives and axes, long bolts of colored cotton, large copper kettles for cooking, wool blankets. And muskets.
They wanted them for very practical reasons, and they shifted their priorities in order to get them. They needed animal furs to have something to trade for them. Although they did barter with other tribes using furs for some items, primarily the animal was trapped or shot for food and fur was used for clothing. But the number of furs they needed for the European goods meant they now killed the animal for trade. That shift changed their relationship to the animals and the spiritual balance of a supply and demand with the world around them. They needed the furs for something they now wanted from outside their environment. It may seem a small shift of attention yet the long-term effects were dramatic. Like the conceptual difference between the land, and property.
Although Brulé grew up in France he knew he wanted to live with the Wendat the first time he saw them. He couldn’t speak their language and had little to no idea where they lived or how far away. Yet he joined them, alone, and traveling over five hundred miles into the wilderness to what is now Ontario. He would have been one of the very few to experience life with an indigenous tribe in North America before they started to shift, influenced by European trade, diseases and colonization.
A Land Apart gives us a gripping story of adventure and courage set in a magnificent wilderness with the French, English, Iroquois and Wendat just starting to do battle for what would become Canada and the US.
Thanks for such an interesting and informative post, Ian.
~~~ About the Book ~~~
A gripping story of adventure and courage set in a magnificent wilderness with the French, English, Iroquois and Wendat just starting to do battle for what would become Canada and the US.
“The flintlock releases with a click and then three powerful, exhilarating sensations hit him at once: the kick of the musket hard into his shoulder, the deafening roar, and the dense, acrid smell of burnt powder smoke. As the crashing echo of his shot rolls back from across the lake he knows the blow of the musket ball would be lethal to Wendat flesh. Totiri knew before lifting the musket that he wanted it. Now the desire consumes him.”
It’s 1634 in New France. Etienne Brulé has lived with the Wendat and helped them develop the fur trade with France for 25 years and fought beside them against the Iroquois. When the English sell the Iroquois guns, Brulé is the only one who can get guns for the Wendat. But he knows the price everyone will pay in the end.