CM . . . . Volume XVI Number 13. . . .November 27, 2009.
The Boy Kelsey.
Winnipeg, MB: Great Plains, 2009.
189 pp., pbk., $14.95.
Hudsonís Bay Company-Juvenile fiction.
Northwest, Canadian-Juvenile fiction.
Grades 6-9 / Ages 11-14.
Review by Mary Thomas.
The noon meal in the servants' mess was a watery mess of a stew that tasted like it might have a few bits of seagull in it or the tail ends of an old walrus. But at least it was something warm and wet to soften the hardtack biscuits in. The Officers' Mess was no doubt serving something like fresh venison brought in by the Home Guard, as the Home Indians were called. Kelsey didn't think about whether the difference was fair or unfair, he just thought about taking his own meals in the Officers' Mess some day.
As the servants' mess was clattering with empty dishes being cleared away, one of the junior officers stuck his head in the door to shout over the din, "The boy Kelsey is wanted by the Governor. Now."
The stew and hardtack coagulated in Kelsey's stomach. As he crossed the courtyard to the log house where the fort governor held court, he wondered what he might've done wrong, or hadn't done right. The supply ship was due in a few weeks, so if the Governor was fed up with him, the apprentice boy could easily be shipped back to England. Back to what? Maybe a job scraping the open sewer gutters on the streets of London, if he was lucky. Kelsey was still an indentured servant, meaning that his pathetic wages still hadn't paid off what he owed The Company for his passage from England and his room and board and clothing and practical education. If The Company dumped him on the dock, he'd have nothing but a bad reputation.
The Governor was sitting in a large chair set back from a large table where a clerk was scritching a quill pen across a large piece of paper. The Governor's curled black wig hung down past the shoulders of his gold-buttoned green velvet coat. The Governor said, "Ah, Kelsey, sit ye down, lad," and pointed at a stool beside the table. "Would ye care for a mug of beer?"
The Boy Kelsey is historical fiction of the kind that Josephine Tey once called "history with conversation." The author's note at the end of the book cites his sources--largely Kelsey's journals--and gives a chatty explanation of how he, Silver, got from "...so I gave him some powder and an Order to receive some shott of such a woman..." to Kelsey's having taken an Indian wife and, therefore, having had the sort of experiences that are described in the book.
Henry Kelsey, a teenaged indentured servant of the Hudson's Bay Company at York Factory on Hudson's Bay, is sent west on a mission with two purposes. The first is to encourage trade with tribes farther away from the fort by bargaining for their peaceful passage through the lands closer to the fort, and the second is to fulfill the mandate of the Company to explore the continent, looking for a passage to India and China.
Why send someone so junior in the Company? Mostly because he was expendable, and, since he had no influential relatives back in England to ask awkward question were he to disappear--an all-too-likely outcome--he could be spared. There is also some evidence of his having been on good terms with the Indians living near the fort, some of whom would be needed to guide him on his travels. And finally, Kelsey, himself, had nothing to lose in going on such a mission since he had no status as yet within the Company. Besides, he was young and, therefore, immortal, at least in his own eyes, and it was an adventure.
Adventures make good reading, and certainly spice up the historical background, though it is interesting in its own right, and not merely as Kelsey's stage. It makes sense that the tribes living on the lands closer to York Factory would jealously guard access to it, since they could both trade advantageously with those farther away but also keep them from acquiring guns which could possibly be used against them. Just as reasonably, the Company wanted to get furs as cheaply as possible, by buying them directly from the trappers. Silver makes a good case for his speculative story-telling, and it certainly is a terrific story.
Silver is obviously knowledgeable about, and interested in, how things were done in those days. A bonus is, therefore, that details of making balls for muskets or dyes for porcupine quills, or any number of other odd items, are all recorded in the context of Kelsey's story. Silver draws vivid contrasts between the ways that the white man and the Indian regard the same situation while being careful to point out the validity of both points of view given their dissimilar backgrounds. Anyone at all interested in the fur trade, or life in the bush, or any other aspect of early Canadian history will find this a fun and enjoyable read.
Mary Thomas works in the library of an elementary school in Winnipeg, MB.
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