CM . . .
. Volume IX Number 1 . . . . September 6, 2002
As Isobel Scott writes these heartbreaking words, she's already borne a year's worth of trials trying to make a new home in the rough New World. The 12-year-old is one of many settlers who left a Scotland changed irrevocably by the battle of Culloden in 1746. Isobel's fictional diary, Footsteps in the Snow, another in the "Dear Canada" series by Scholastic Canada, chronicles her thoughts during her first two years seeking independence in the Red River area of Rupert's Land.
Author Carol Matas, who is rightly celebrated for her historical fiction (Daniel's Story, After the War, Lisa, Greater than Angels, Rebecca, The War Within), brings dusty Canadian history into vibrant being. Footsteps in the Snow is made up of small details, each relying on its relevance to each other and to Isobel to make sense of an important time in Canada's making. Isobel's claustrophobia onboard a ship trapped in ice, the persistence of insects on the open York boats, her hunger, cold and anxiety are easily extrapolated to give insight into the tribulations common to all the settlers, while Isobel's own stresses - her mother's recent death, her father's withdrawal, her worry over her brothers - reinforce the personal focus of the diary.
There's much information to impart. Matas rightly assumes that what fascinates Isobel will hold readers as well. She includes detailed descriptions of the settlers' interaction with the Indians, including the trading ceremony, games, buffalo hunts, pemmican preparation and hide tanning. Despite the plethora of new sights and experiences, however, Matas does not overlook Isobel's past. Readers will find references to the Scottish haggis, Hansel Monday and Hogmanay as well. Similarly inclusive, moments of beauty are depicted alongside the hardships.
The overwhelming presence of the Hudson Bay Company poses a problem that Matas handles deftly. She judiciously filters the HBC presence through Isobel's consciousness and relates only the parts directly affecting the settlers. She leaves the rest for the historical notes which both set the scene with maps, historical pictures, and background on how events inside and outside Canada shaped the country and allow the dramatic start "Mother is dead."
The HBC-Northwest Trading Company rivalry presents a perfect opportunity for Matas to showcase her skill as story crafter. Tension builds as the pioneers battle first the elements and then the menace of the Northwest Trading company whose machinations mount from a negative propaganda campaign to the destruction of outposts and the recruitment of Metis violence.
Isobel is a passive participant in these political events, but her incidental involvement as one whose life and expectations are endangered is both realistic and sufficient. She shows her resourcefulness and responsibility in smaller matters of survival, trading with the Indians for clothes and moccasins, caring for her family. Although Isobel may make today's 12-year-olds seem so much younger, her actions are perfectly in line with the times and trials that surround her. Glimpses of the child within surface occasionally, especially in Isobel's response to Kate's goading and her enjoyment of the native games.
Adding more depth to Isobel's character, Matas has endowed Isobel with a bit of a superiority complex. Isobel wants to be a lady like her mother whose influence is clear and whose character comes across more strongly than those of the other supporting characters. Her desire for genteelism translates unfortunately into a rather patronizing bias against the "savages," a prejudice that oddly does not seem to exist in any of the adults. Isobel's maturation is evident, however, as she stops looking for status and wealth, accepts White Loon as part of her family and relinquishes some of her adult duties.
The strength in Isobel the young girl is consistent with the selfless woman of the epilogue, an ideal inclusion for readers who will have invested much into Isobel's fate. The epilogue also draws the saga to its natural end, summarizing additional years of hardship and concluding with Isobel's death, which fittingly parallels the demise of the buffalo and the Cree way of life.
Cora Lee is a Vancouver, BC, writer and editor.
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