CM . . .
. Volume XVI Number 12. . . .November 20, 2009
Band of Acadians is a well-researched, informative book about a little-known episode of Canadian history, the expulsion of the Acadians from Nova Scotia. Skelton tells the story of a group of adolescents who escape from their community before British soldiers can transport them away, and who then must use all their courage and resourcefulness to create a new life in Cape Breton, even as the British defeat the French at Louisbourg. It is unclear whether this story is based on a true account of such a group, or is an amalgamation of several historical accounts, or is entirely fictional—this would be useful to know.
Skelton gives brief sketches of the society and politics of the era, but he is most interested in the survival skills of his characters: he explains how they built shelters and rafts, how they hunted and trapped, what kinds of tools and resources they had to work with, what they would have had to eat, and how they might have organized themselves to travel while hiding from British soldiers. The refugees’ encounter with a Mi’kmaq village allows him to describe Mi’kmaq society and technology. He uses the character of Frank to explain how settlers might have discovered different uses of the minerals available in Cape Breton, including gypsum, iron ore and coal while a few battles with both French and British soldiers are opportunities to show the types of weapons they could have devised with these resources. His detailed descriptions of Frank’s experiments are interesting, although it seems highly unlikely that one adolescent would have invented everything Frank comes up with.
Most of the refugees aren’t even given names, and the main characters have no particularly distinguishing traits, nor do they express desires or emotions other than the obvious ones to do with their plight (hunger, fear, relief). Conflict between characters is contrived; motivations are shallow. Frank, for example, a British youth who throws in his lot with the Acadians, could be a fascinating character, but all we ever find out about him is given in two short speeches when he shows up with a backpack. He says, “I’m a student in England and I’m here just for the summer to ‘broaden my horizons,’” and the only reason he gives for joining the refugees is that “the more I thought about it the more troubled I became by what’s been done to you.” This lack of character development makes the novel feel like a reenactment of history rather than a story about living people.
Band of Acadians is a better way of introducing students to the Grand Derangement than a few dry paragraphs in a history text, but I think it would have worked much better as a non-fiction book. Skelton is obviously well-versed in his subject, particularly in the history of science and technology, and a non-fiction book would have given him more scope to explain the experiments and inventions he highlights. Although there is a lot of interesting information in the book, and the novel format attempts to bring it to life for the reader, Skelton’s style is more suited to non-fiction. I recommend Band of Acadians as supplementary material for a classroom discussion of the Acadian expulsion, but I do not think it works as a novel.
Recommended with reservations.
Kim Aippersbach is a free-lance editor and writer with three children in Vancouver, B.C.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.