CM . . . . Volume XVIII Number 30 . . . . April 6, 2012
B.J. Bayle presents her novel about the Red River colony (Selkirk Settlement) and the Seven Oaks massacre from the perspective of a fictional 14-year-old, Angus Fraser. Red River Rising opens in 1813, when Angus's parents in Kildonan, Scotland, are being pushed off the land they have rented for centuries from a "laird" or feudal landowner who wants to raise sheep instead. The Fraser family hears Thomas Douglas, the 5th Earl of Selkirk, urging displaced crofters to come to North America and settle in Assiniboia, the 120,000 mile grant of land he has obtained from the Hudson's Bay Company. This grant, shown on a map at the beginning of the novel, included the southern third of present day Manitoba and parts of Saskatchewan, South Dakota and Ontario.
Bayle brings to life the colonists' voyage across the Atlantic and into Hudson Bay. Angus's anguish over his brother Rabbie's death and sea burial seems very true to life. Rabbie remains a presence throughout the novel as Angus sorts out his thoughts in imagined conversations with him. Near the end, Angus's mother says, "He's in the back of my mind always, but my thinking about him is happy, thinking of the way he was and the way he did." Aboard ship, Angus makes friends with a girl his own age, Maggie, the character most likely to attract young female readers.
As Bayle shows, the generosity and expertise of native people was crucial to the colonists' survival. Wintering at Churchill in lean to huts was a grim initiation for the Europeans. The cover image, a picture of "Winter Fishing on Ice of Assiniboine and Red River", by Peter Rindisbacher, 1806-1834, captures the environment well.
Bayle also conveys wonders of the new land. "Angus could see the three white mounds, lying fanwise with their noses together," she writes. "These were no sounds, but a ripple of fear raced through the line of colonists when one of the dozing animals raised its head and sniffed the air."
From York Factory, the colonists travelled via the Hayes River to Lake Winnipeg and thence to The Forks, the junction of the Red and Assiniboine rivers. They arrived in the Seven Oaks Creek area unaware of the tensions between the Hudson's Bay Company and the North West Company.
Since one cannot take for granted that young readers will know the history of the two rival companies, an historical note would have been helpful. Founded by merchants in England in 1670, the Hudson's Bay Company received from the king a monopoly on all lands drained by rivers flowing into Hudson Bay. The H.B.C. established ports on the shores of Hudson Bay, to which natives brought their furs. Just over one hundred years later, in 1779, some Montreal merchants of Scots background established the Northwest Company, and ignored the H.B.C. monopoly. The Norwesters travelled into the wilderness to buy furs from native people, and by 1795, controlled four fifths of the fur trade. At the time Bayle's novel takes place, the H.B.C. was playing catch up. The Métis who lived near the junction of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers worked with both companies, or as bison hunters supplying pemmican. All these matters arise indirectly in Red River Rising, but a young reader new to the historical background need more spelled out than young Maggie's explanation:
Angus and the other settlers support their governor, Miles Macdonell, in prohibiting the traditional Métis buffalo hunt and the selling of pemmican or other foodstuffs out of the colony. Pemmican was crucial to the North West Company fur traders, and when Macdonell ordered the seizure of 700 bags of North West Company pemmican, tempers flared.
In one scene, Maggie and Angus meet the chief villain, Northwest Company factor Duncan Cameron, a cultivated charming man who has an extensive library in his fort. Angus mistrusts Cameron mainly because he offers the use of his books to Maggie. Later, Angus hears that "Duncan Cameron is feeding [the native people] lies. He's gone far enough as to tell them that our colony must be removed, else so many like us will come that they'll be forced to move to the far north where there are no buffalo or anything else." In light of what happened to the Métis and Indians later in the 19th century, one might call Cameron's prediction prescient.
Tensions eventually escalated into the battle of Seven Oaks (aka La Grenouillere, "Frog Plain"). On the one side was the new governor, Semple, supported by Hudson's Bay Company men and settlers, and on the other were Métis working for the Northwest Company. Métis sharpshooters killed 21 men, including Semple; the Métis side had one fatality.
In the chapters set in Scotland, it is clear that the wealthy and powerful have disrupted the lives of those at the bottom of society. In the North American setting, however, it is less clear that both settlers and Métis are the servants of powerful mercantile interests. Instead, we read Angus's opinion that Lord Selkirk was a "grand man" who did a "great favour" to dispossessed Scots by starting a colony through his agreement with the Hudson's Bay Company.
Bayle ends her novel in 1816 with Lord Selkirk facing a legal battle for his actions against the Northwest Company. We do not learn about the companies' 1821 merger, nor of the colony's failure to thrive. Instead, we are shown Angus's vision of Victorian prosperity in Assiniboia:
In fact, Selkirk's settlement was plagued by natural disasters, and, in 1834, the 6th Earl of Selkirk sold it back to the Hudson Bay Company. Fishing, hunting and fur trading remained the principal economic activities in the area until 1869 when the Company handed over its title to the new Dominion of Canada. After passage of the Dominion Lands Act in 1872, agricultural settlement grew and led to conflict with native people. These developments were a dream for some, and a nightmare for others.
Ruth Latta's most recent novel is The Old Love and the New Love (Ottawa, Baico, 2012).
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other reproduction is prohibited without permission.
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.