CM . . .
. Volume XIV Number 14 . . . . March 7, 2008
In reviewing B. J. Bayle’s book, Perilous Passage, I am mindful of the likelihood that my opinion of the book has suffered because of my own high expectations. When I first read the back cover blurb, I was filled with anticipation because it seemed likely the book would prove an ideal fit for many of my own interests—things such as exploration, early European and First Nation contact, and the struggle of man against nature. As such, it was with high expectations that I sat down to read Perilous Passage. Unfortunately, for me, the book did not live up to my expectations.
Perilous Passage is a 184-page historical fiction novel detailing the mapmaking quest of explorer David Thompson to establish a northwest passage along the Columbia River to the Pacific Ocean. In the early 1800s, Thompson and his fellow explorers are joined by Peter No-Name, a boy suffering amnesia after a traumatic shipwreck.
Although there are passages of interest in Bayle’s Perilous Passage, I found the author’s understated writing style left me with a disappointed sense that the tale could have been better told. I would have much preferred stronger character development as this would have helped me to maintain interest in the fate of the exploration party as its members battled their way through Canada’s wilderness frontier. I concede that the construction of Thompson’s character was an exception. The famous explorer emerges as a multidimensional mix of good qualities and human failings. I would have liked to see Bayle endow more of the characters with the same depth as is evident in the portrayal of Thompson. One specific example of a poorly developed character is the surly DuNord. DuNord is the antagonist whose presence is an on-going cause of concern to the protagonist, Peter. Bayle could have done much more with DuNord’s character but DuNord instead emerges as little more than a flimsy irritant.
Furthermore, I felt there were too many story episodes that were not developed to their full potential. This failing left what should have been an engrossing and exciting tale with a flat feel. I do not believe this does justice to the explorers Bayle has attempted to portray in her novel. Given this is a historical fiction novel for upper-elementary and middle school readers, I particularly noticed the limited amount of dialogue. Bayle has mostly relied upon descriptive narrative to carry her story forward, but the writing lacks the depth required to assist the reader in immersing him/herself in the wilderness world Bayle is using as her setting.
To her credit, Bayle endeavoured to establish a sense of tension, oftentimes leaving her characters in some sort of peril at chapters’ ends. Almost invariably, however, the tension was relieved immediately by a lack of ensuing drama. For example, at the end of chapter 11, Peter suddenly finds himself alone with DuNord who “stalks” toward Peter, leaving Peter “paralyzed with fear.” Despite this tense chapter ending, on the first page of chapter 12, DuNord merely offers some form of an apology and then disappears from the novel. The same problem occurs at the end of chapter 17 where everyone in the exploration party remains “absolutely still” as minutes slip by with “agonizing slowness.” The explorers are frozen with fear under the gaze of three rows of warriors armed with bows and arrows. As the reader, I quickly flicked to the next page, but, in the first sentence of chapter 18, I learned that the warriors merely backed away and disappeared. Doubtless, Bayle’s dramatic license is limited by a desire to remain true to historical events, but the pattern of build-up and anticlimactic follow-up was a source of disappointment throughout the novel.
Perilous Passage is sprinkled with engaging elements, but I found the book generally disappointing. As a devotee of historical fiction, I believe that readers will better spend their time with other books.
Gregory Bryan works at University of Manitoba where he teaches children’s literature courses in the Faculty of Education.
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