CM . . .
. Volume XI Number 9 . . . .January 7, 2005
The word "mysterious" is well used in the subtitle of this book. Very little is documented about the life of Étienne Brûlé, leaving his biographers to make guesses about much of his life before and after he came to Canada with Samuel de Champlain as a scout and interpreter.
Unfortunately for readers hoping for more information about Brûlé, there is nothing in this book that has not already been discovered. Even more unfortunately, Douglas has added enormous amounts of speculation in addition to some confusion and contradiction. The phrase, "He must have been ," is omnipresent in this book, as it the phrase, "It is likely that ." Both phrases set off alarm bells--how does Douglas know these things? Because all of the existing information about Brûlé is second hand, there is no way for Douglas to know that, for example, "he would have basked in the sensual delights of an autumn in the St. Lawrence Valley," (p. 51) or that " he must have had a twinge of doubt at the last minute." (p. 62). Douglas's imaginings, while poetic, can tend toward melodrama, and are not, so far as I can tell, based in any research. In a fictionalized account this would be acceptable, but in a book with the words "History" and "Biography" on the cover, it is not.
Douglas provides a bibliography at the end of the book, but there are no notes in the text that relate her suppositions to specific works.
Though Douglas is clearly well versed in the tribal names of the Indian groups encountered by Brûlé, she can create confusion at times in the reader who does not have the same background. For example, in a story about Brûlé's capture by the enemy tribe, Douglas uses the name "Iroquois." In the next chapter, "Iroquois" is dropped, and "Seneca" is used--apparently referring to the same group of people.
Another story results in confusion when we are told that Champlain had to hold tight and wait for the Indians to come to him because three of his companions had just dramatically lost the last canoe (along with one of their lives) to the Lachine Rapids. On the next page, Douglas tells the reader that when Champlain sees the group coming towards him, he hops into a canoe and rows out to greet them. Where did the canoe come from?
Because Douglas has based a lot of what she knows about Brûlé on Champlain's writing, this book does give a good amount of detail about Champlain's voyages and his travels with the Huron in Quebec and Ontario. Unfortunately, the speculation, "melodramatization," and contradictions make reading this book a chore rather than a pleasure. For an excellent and succinct account of Champlain's life and times, including a page about Brûlé, see Christopher Moore's updated book Champlain, published this year by Tundra Books.
Grace Sheppard is a Children's Librarian with the Ottawa Public Library in Ottawa, ON.
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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.