CM . . . . Volume XVII Number 37 . . . . May 27, 2011
In Beyond the Shickshock Mountains: A Canadian Talon Saga, author Malcolm Mills shows how three young men named "Talon" overcame injustices and made something of their lives. The three part story takes place in Gaspé, in the Newfoundland woods and in St. John's, and in Boston, during the mid 1700s. (It has nothing to do with Jean Talon, the Intendant of New France from 1625 to 1694.)
In Part I, 20-year-old Jean George Talon is caught up in debt slavery to the fishing company that employs him on the Gaspé Peninsula. His illiterate and innumerate co workers are easily cheated by the company bookkeeper, but Jean George, who can read and do arithmetic, exposes the company agent who has been cheating the workers and secures them what's owing them. Jean George hopes to take his ailing father to Quebec because he fears British invasion of the east coast communities, but before he can go, he finds his father stabbed with a fishing knife. Realizing that the company is out for revenge, he and some of his friends leave to seek a better life elsewhere. His adventures are presented dramatically.
Part II centres upon an Irish orphan named Shannagan who was shipped by an orphanage to St. John's where he was given to a vicar as an indentured servant. Though he was promised his freedom in two years, his room and board kept adding to his debt. Despairing of ever being free, he escapes to the forest where he encounters a camp of "Masterless Men" who have all run afoul of the law, mostly for escaping near slavery conditions in various working environments. The boy helps them and, in return, they give him a new start, which ends in his becoming a Talon.
Part III begins with Trevallion James Talon unjustly arrested in St. John's and his ship and cargo impounded. As a child, Trevallion angered a man named Trench, who later became the Governor and Fishing Admiral of St. John's. The author explains that the captain of the first ship into St. John's harbour in the spring became the Fishing Admiral for the season. The Fishing Admirals had no special legal qualifications, and the justice they dispensed was absolute and often involved corporal punishment. Trevallion escapes into the wilderness and takes refuge with Beothuk natives, who feel threatened by the influx of Europeans. When Trevallion learns that his father has been charged with treason and shipped to England, he plans an attack upon Fishing Admiral Trench, followed by a quick getaway.
Debt slavery is a new subject for Canadian historical fiction, and Mills is to be commended for breaking new ground. The dramatic action scenes prevent the novel from being a history lesson. As well, the author includes interesting details about life in those times, such as the use of playing cards as money when coins were scarce. Mills includes words like "milksop" and turns of phrase like, "There was naught but conscience to bind me", to suggest 18th century speech.
Less effective is the tendency of characters to speak to others as if they were addressing a public meeting. Some books on the craft of writing suggest that no segment of dialogue should exceed three sentences. True, 18th century literature was more formal and wordy than current writing (one thinks of Tom Jones) and naturally the Beothuk chief would orate at a meeting, but the exchanges between characters may sound ponderous to inexperienced readers.
The author uses an epilogue to bring the young men together when they are older and show what they have achieved; consequently, there is quite a bit of summary (telling) of what happened to them in the interim. It might have been interesting, though unwieldy, to have these adventures played out (dramatized).
All books published by small presses, my own included, could probably benefit from more rigorous copy editing. In this novel, surely accent marks should be included in the French words which require them. This review is based on a bound proof; perhaps all the pesky little glitches will be caught before the finished books are released.
I was sorry not to find a bibliography or author's note about sources. While a bibliography is not vital to an historical novel as it is to a history book, a list of works consulted is helpful to those who want to know more about an era.
Ruth Latta included a bibliography in her mystery novel, Memories Stick (Ottawa, Baico, ISBN 1897357 77 X, firstname.lastname@example.org).
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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.