Barkskins by Annie Proulx

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  Hooray, I have finally finished this very long and overrated book!   I don’t know whether there’s something wonderful about it which I just didn’t get, or whether it’s an emperor’s new clothes thing and reviewers just felt obliged to say that it was brilliant because it was supposed to be about environmental issues (deforestation).

It began as the story of two French indentured labourers in 17th century “New France” (i.e. Quebec).  One ran away, married a wealthy Dutchwoman and set up a successful business.  The other one remained a labourer and married a First Nations woman.  Edward Rutherfurd or James Michener could have made an excellent job of telling the history of Quebec through the history of these two families, but this book jumped about all over the place … various different parts of Canada, various different parts of (what became) the United States, Britain, France, the Netherlands, China and New Zealand.  There were a lot of different characters, and it didn’t stick with any of them for more than five minutes, so it was impossible for the reader to get really involved with any of them.

As for being about deforestation … well, it wasn’t, really.  There was some interesting stuff about forests, especially in relation to the culture of some of the different First Nations groups, but it was all just too bitty.

The characters kept losing track of who was related to whom.  I’m not surprised!   And there was very little political history in it: I appreciate that it wasn’t meant to be about political history, but, given that it covered a 300 year time period with lots of gaps, it was difficult to follow where it was up to without any mention of world events.

It’s a shame, because it was a promising start, and it could potentially have been very good, but I just wasn’t impressed.  However, it has had a lot of good reviews, so maybe it’s just me.  When I get chance, I shall try watching the TV adaptation, and see if I get on any better with that!

 

Bess on her own in Canada and Sharlie’s Kenya Diary by Elinor M Brent-Dyer

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These two stories, the second pair of “geography readers”, will probably only be read by Elinor M Brent-Dyer (EBD) completists; but I enjoyed them.  I thought that they were very well-written, and I’m sorry that they weren’t longer: full-length books about Bess and Sharlie would have been so much better than, say, “Beechy of the Harbour School”!  The plot of the Canada book is rather thin and silly, and the Kenya book hasn’t really got a plot, but, for stories of this length, that doesn’t matter: the appeal is in the descriptions of the Okanagan region of British Columbia and many areas of Kenya.  Considering that EBD never visited either, she does pretty well with them.  The stories were intended to be educational and there’s some information in them about farming and produce, and also about soil erosion and vanishing lakes in Kenya, which may strike much more of a chord now than it probably did in the 1950s, but they’re more descriptions of the scenery than anything else.  There’s also quite a bit about the wildlife in Kenya, although, sadly, no-one has a pet lion cub (I love “Born Free”).

And both main characters are very appealing.  They both come from uncomplicated backgrounds.  Sharlie’s parents take her to Kenya with them because they *don’t* want to dump her somewhere, but she also has a term at school there because both she and they accept that kids do actually have to get an education and look towards getting a job!  Neither has a major character flaw requiring reform.  They’re just nice, ordinary girls, the sort who never get to take centre stage in full-length books.  And these are very nice reads.

The publishers have padded the book out with long introductions.  There’s nothing wrong with them, except that the Kenya one bizarrely mixes up Lancashire and Cheshire, but, having paid for fiction, I think I’d rather have had some short stories instead.  Oh well.  There’s also a note about the “patronising” language used about the natives in Kenya.  I’m not sure that it was any more patronising than the language used in EBD’s other books about the “peasants” in Austria and Guernsey, but they are given a voice, whereas, unfortunately, we don’t actually hear from any black characters in this.  However, EBD did devote a fair bit of the book to discussing the local customs – even if, as in A Chalet Girl from Kenya, she misunderstood/misused the word “shauri”, but she must have read that somewhere – which a lot of authors at the time would not have done.

Bess, then.  Fifteen-year-old Bess and her parents and two younger brothers live on a wheat farm in Saskatchewan.  When her dad suffers an accident which is going to put him out of action for several months, Bess is dispatched to Vancouver Island to find a cousin with whom they have lost touch and whose address they do not have (their letters to him have been returned), to ask him to abandon his own affairs and come and help. As you would.  The idea is that she’ll go to the first post office or police station she finds, and they’ll be able to track down the said cousin.  You do wonder why her mum didn’t write to the post office or police station, or indeed just engage a manager, but, OK, that would have spoilt the story.

She goes off with a woman whom she meets on the train and, hey presto, the woman’s brother-in-law knows the cousin.  But he’s moved.  To the Okanagan Valley.  So off Bess goes again, and she then goes off with a man whom she meets on a ferry, and, of course, he knows the cousin too.  Her propensity to go off with complete strangers is really rather worrying, but she finds the cousin, he agrees to come and help out, and she gets to spend some time looking round the area.

It’s a very silly plot, but the descriptions really are lovely.  Sadly, we hear very little about Vancouver (which for some reason is referred to as “Vancouver City”) or Victoria, which are both wonderful cities, but we do hear a lot about the Okanagan Valley, and the fruit farms there, and life around the lake.  It really made me want to go to British Columbia again!   It’s such a lovely part of the world, and that came across very well in the book.

Chalet School fans will know that Ted Grantley’s eldest brother was fruit farming in British Columbia, and that Bette Rincini was living in Saskatchewan.  I do wish that EBD had written about the experiences of the many Chalet School characters whom she dispatched, temporarily or permanently, to different parts of the Commonwealth; but she didn’t.  However, Sharlie and her parents meet a Mr and Mrs Scott in Kenya … are these Paul and Maisie Scott, the parents of Jo Scott?

Sharlie’s dad has to go to Kenya on business, and his wife and daughter accompany him.  The story’s in the form of a diary which Sharlie keeps to show her schoolfriends when she gets home.  They travel around, and it sounds wonderful – they see the main cities, go on safari, see lakes and waterfalls, and also see one of the “shauris” which Jo Scott talks about.  There’s some environmental stuff.  And some talk about locusts – which I associate with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “On the Banks of Plum Creek” but which are still causing problems in parts of Africa now – and also a bit about the history of East Africa.  Am I the only one who, whenever I see the word “Zanzibar”, immediately thinks “Ah, Freddie Mercury,” or does everyone do that 🙂 ?

So, two fairly short stories, but I liked them.  No-one other than an EBD fan is going to spend £13 on this book, but I’m glad I did!

The Youngest Sister: A Tale of Manitoba by Bessie Marchant (Facebook group reading challenge)

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Bessie Marchant’s books are great, because her girls get to have all sorts of hair-raising adventures and never need to be rescued by boys!  I was expecting this, published in 1913, to be primarily an adventure book, as most of her books are – the blurb did say “a series of adventures” – but, although it started off with our heroine saving a man from drowning, it turned out to be quite an eclectic mix of genres, with shades of Little House on the Prairie, What Katy Did and Little Women … and then a load of adventures to finish up with!   There were some ridiculously far-fetched coincidences, but it was quite enjoyable, and I liked the idea of having a main character who was neither a self-confident leader, too good to be true nor in need of reform: she was nice without being annoyingly perfect, and her main fault (insofar as it was a fault) was a lack of self-confidence, which I think a lot of readers would identify with.

Heroines of adventure books usually are courageous and outgoing, but Bertha Doyne was … I was going to say a bit of a wuss, but that’d be unfair because she actually was very brave when she needed to be, just, as I’ve said above, lacking in confidence.  Like Janie Temple in the La Rochelle books, she was the youngest of three sisters who’d been orphaned and left without much money.  However, unlike Elizabeth and Anne Temple, the two older sisters, Anne and Hilda, had both got jobs.  Bertha hung around the house, in Nova Scotia, doing the cooking and cleaning and feeling inferior (although she really wasn’t as annoying as that makes her sound), until one day she saved a man from drowning and decided that she clearly wasn’t that useless after all.  But, before she could do anything about it, Anne got married and moved to Australia, Hilda went on a tour of Europe as a governess/companion, and Bertha was packed off to Manitoba to stay with a married cousin, Grace, who’d been very good to the three girls when their mother had died but now lived in the middle of nowhere and had umpteen kids.

She hadn’t been there long before Grace fell off a horse and was paralysed, which meant that Bertha had to do all the housework, look after the kids and look after Grace.  Then most of their wheat, and their neighbours’ wheat, was destroyed by fire.  Bertha’s heroic efforts (hooray!) to stop the spread of the fire meant that things weren’t as bad as they could have been, but Grace’s husband had to go off on an “expedition” because it paid well and they were desperate for money.  And then it turned out that he’d been conned so he wasn’t going to get paid at all.

So much for an adventure novel!  And Bessie Marchant’s books are usually fairly cheerful, but I was beginning to get the horrible feeling that this was going to turn into some sort of preachy religious novel, with Bertha feeling duty-bound to stay there and sacrifice herself for everyone else’s well-being, even though her eldest sister had sent the money for her to go to Australia, and Grace never complaining about what had happened to her.  But it actually never got like that.  It was always quite clear that Bertha was thoroughly pissed off about it all, rather than accepting it with sweet contentment, and that the disaster with the wheat wasn’t some sort of test of their spirit but a result of the farmers’ stupidity in relying solely on one crop.  And Grace, whilst she didn’t complain, certainly didn’t deliver lectures on the School of Pain and the School of Love – just kept on hoping that she’d eventually recover.  In the end she did.  As people in books often do.

Various other things were going on too.  In between the various disasters, Bertha had been trying to get some writing published – like Jo March in Little Women, although it didn’t occur to her to try writing “trash” (I do wonder what was in some of the stuff Jo wrote!) just to try to bring some money in.  And, when she’d rescued the man from drowning, he’d put his coat on her to keep her warm … and she’d found a load of diamonds in the pocket!  As you do.  But he’d never come back for them, which was very odd.  And then he’d disappeared.  Also, it had transpired that Tom (Grace’s husband) had a nasty but rich old uncle, who’d just been robbed.  Fancy that!  Bertha had been stressing about the diamonds and returning them to the mysterious coat owner ever since she’d found them.

Then, whaddaya know, the coat owner turned up, thousands of miles from where she’d last seen him!   Not only once, but twice – first, he just happened to be passing whilst the wheat was burning, and came to her assistance, and then she saved him (again) from a runaway sled in a blizzard.  As you do.  Only she didn’t realise who he was until it was too late – and then she decided that she’d have to ride thirty miles or so to the nearest town, and hope to catch up with him there.

But, on reaching the town, she found out that the mystery man, Edgar, was no longer there: he’d taken a job as a navvy and was miles away by then.  But she was so stressed about the diamonds that she decided she’d have to go to the railway camp … but, en route, the end carriage in which she and her chaperone were travelling became uncoupled from the rest of the train, and, with nobody else seeming to notice, was left perched precariously on a rickety bridge in a gale.  Ah, this was more like Bessie Marchant!   The chaperone was swept out of the door by the gale, but Bertha rescued her.  Hooray!  And eventually they did get to the railway camp.  It turned out that Edgar was not in a fact a navvy by trade, but was a nice middle-class bloke (which was a jolly good job, because Bertha really fancied him and obviously we wouldn’t have wanted her taking up with someone with no prospects) who’d been forced to work as a navvy after being wrongly accused of embezzlement.  It was all happening now!   But, when she tried to hand over the diamonds, he said that he knew nothing about them and had no idea how they’d got into his pocket.

Right.  He then offered to escort her home, because her chaperone was too traumatised by the carriage on rickety bridge affair to travel back immediately.  I’m not sure that this was very proper, but never mind.  On reaching the hotel where they had to wait for the train, he found, waiting for him, a letter bringing the news that his name had been cleared.  Wa-hey!!  But, oh no – they also heard that everyone on Tom’s expedition had been found frozen to death.  More woe!   On reaching home, they found that the nasty rich uncle was there, full of contrition and offering to support Grace (who was still recovering) and the kids.  Oh well, that was one thing sorted – that’d leave Bertha free to ride off into the sunset with Edgar.  Er, no, sadly not.  Edgar wanted to marry Bertha, obviously, but felt that he couldn’t ask her because a) he still hadn’t got any money and b) he didn’t want to ruin her writing career (he clearly hadn’t read any GO books in which married women continue to write books).  And Grace couldn’t possibly accept charity from the rich old uncle, because he was nasty, so Bertha would have to stay with her.  Oh dear.  Oh dear indeed.

Then, as if things weren’t bad enough, the nasty old uncle recognised Edgar as the man who’d robbed him – yes, of the diamonds.  Of course, there was a perfectly simple explanation.  They’d both been attending meetings at the same hotel, and had left their coats in the cloakroom.  Obviously you’d really leave a coat with a bag of extremely valuable diamonds in the pocket in an unattended cloakroom in a public place.  Edgar had picked up the wrong coat without realising it.  And not noticed that there was anything in any of the pockets.  Bertha handed over the diamonds … but the uncle collapsed with the shock of it all.  Edgar rode post haste to get the doctor … and, en route, found a man lying collapsed in the road.  It was Tom!  He’d miraculously survived!  Hooray!

The uncle then obligingly died, leaving the diamonds to Tom and Grace.  Bertha’s book was published, Edgar got a good job, and Bertha and Edgar got married and presumably lived happily ever after.  OK, OK, it was ridiculously far-fetched, but it really was quite a good read – I was genuinely quite excited as I waited to find out how Edgar had come to have the diamonds!   It combined a number of different genres quite well, and Bertha made a good heroine.  It’s available for free on Amazon, and I think it’s also on Project Gutenberg, and, for free, it’s certainly worth a go.

Great Canadian Railway Journeys – BBC 2

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Next Monday’s episode is about one of my favourite cities in the whole wide world, Vancouver 🙂 , and  Thursday’s episode is going to finish in another place that I’m very fond of, Quebec City; but last night’s episode was about Prince Edward Island and I’m not passing up an excuse to write about Anne of Green Gables.  It also discussed people who’d sailed from Wester Ross to Nova Scotia – let’s just get The Proclaimers in there 🙂 .  I think Thursday’s episode’s also going to cover the Acadian Expulsions, but that will probably involve Evangeline and I’m not writing about that for anybody.  It’s like Uncle Tom’s Cabin: you feel under some sort of moral obligation to think it’s wonderful, whereas it actually just makes you want to throw up.  The Green Gables books, on the other hand, genuinely are wonderful, and it was lovely to hear people saying that they felt that Anne, Gilbert & co were the soul of Prince Edward Island.

We started in Pictou, Nova Scotia, where Michael Portillo was shown round the Hector, a ship which carried some of the earliest emigrants from the Scottish Highlands to Canada, in 1773.  OK, the programme didn’t actually say that they sailed from Wester Ross, but they probably did!  It did say that around 15% of Canadians have Scottish ancestry, and we saw a lot of tartan signs, and people playing the bagpipes and dancing Scottish reels.

It was, however, rather frustrating to hear the local guide claiming that the emigrants in 1773 were leaving Scotland because “English landlords” had taken over the Highlands after Culloden. What a load of rubbish.  The suppression of Highland culture after Culloden was appalling, but the Clearances, which forced a lot of people off their land, were the work of Scottish landlords trying to make their estates more profitable.  Scottish author Reay Tannahill covers this very well in one of my all-time favourite historical novels, A Dark and Distant Shore, although that covers the second wave of clearances, in the 1820s.  All right, I appreciate that it wasn’t meant as a political comment, but there’s a lot of tension in the world at the moment, and it doesn’t really help when people go around blithely claiming that the English were to blame for this or the Germans were to blame for that or the Russians were to blame for the other, when it isn’t even true!

Rant over!   It was more interesting to hear about the appalling conditions on board the ship – something covered in a lot of detail in Vilhelm Moberg’s The Emigrants, which is about Swedish emigrants to the American mid-West in the early 19th century, but says much the same as the guide in Pictou was saying about the Hector.  We also heard about how people wanting to leave the Highlands were tricked by the organisers of “emigration schemes”, who promised them land and supplies – which, of course, never materialised.  I’d hesitate to use the term “people traffickers”, because it’s not as if people were being forced into slavery/sex work, but there were certainly a lot of unscrupulous people around.   And, as Michael said, you have to admire the tough folk who made that journey and then made new lives for themselves in a strange place and under difficult conditions.

We then heard a lot about lobsters. OK, whatever!  And then on to Prince Edward Island.  Not too much about actual railway journeys in this episode: we saw Michael riding a bike along a disused railway line!   He was heading for Cavendish, where “the” Green Gables house is.  It was owned by L M Montgomery’s grandparents’ cousins, apparently.  She (LMM) was brought up by her grandparents after her mother’s death: her father was a real-life example of one of those widowers you find so often in books, who leave their motherless children with relatives.   I’m so jealous that Michael got to see the house!   I did consider a Maritime Provinces trip for this year, and seeing the Green Gables house was the main attraction.  I went for something else in the end, but I’ll do it one of these days, hopefully!

I love the fact that Michael did talk about Anne of Green Gables, just as he talked about Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books in an earlier series, and I think I remember him talking about Louisa M Alcott as well.  People can be quite snotty about books that were aimed mainly at young girls, but he’s shown them the respect they deserved.  I do love Anne, and the way she makes everything so romantic and such a drama!  I love her romance with Gilbert.  I love her attempts at writing a book.  I love the fact that she goes off to college and that she becomes a teacher.  I have never dared try to dye my hair at home, because of that scene where Anne accidentally dyes her hair green!   And so I loved the fact that the people Michael spoke to did genuinely seem to feel that the books were an essential part of the island’s culture – not just as a way of attracting visitors and peddling tourist tat, but … well, the word “soul” was actually used.  OK, he was talking to people who worked at the Green Gables house, or who were taking part in the Anne of Green Gables musical which has been running for three months a year for fifty-four years, but even so.

We also got to hear about harness racing, particularly associated with Irish settlers, and about red loam soil And then he finished up by saying that Prince Edward Island’s main interest for historians is that it was the scene of the Charlottetown Conference of 1864, which was what really set the ball rolling with Canadian confederation … although, when the Dominion of Canada was formed, in 1867, Prince Edward Island didn’t actually join in, remaining a separate entity until 1873.  Saying that Confederation was about railways was pushing it a bit 🙂 .  OK, railways were an issue, but the ramifications of the American Civil War, general economic issues and the fact that the existing system wasn’t really working did have a bit to do with it as well!

Charlottetown is, therefore, very important in Canadian history. And Confederation is very interesting.  I once delivered a bit of a lecture in it whilst I was sat in canoe on a river (or was it a lake?) in British Columbia.  Seriously, I did!  The canoe supervisor guy for some reason started firing questions about Canadian history at us, and the rest of the group, being more into outdoor sports than history, just didn’t answer … er, so I gave a mini-lecture about Confederation.  I am so weird, I know.  But saying that the Charlottetown Conference is more interesting to historians than Anne Shirley and Gilbert Blythe and co?   Hmm … I’ll have to have a good long think about that one!

Taboo – BBC 1

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Word PressI am really trying to like this programme, because it’s entertaining in a weird sort of way, and I’m missing Poldark and Victoria; but the historical inaccuracies are just too much to take!!  The whole premise of the series is that, in 1814, James Delaney has somehow inherited control of Nootka Sound, on the west coast of Vancouver Island, and the British government, the American government and the East India Company are all desperate to get their hands on it.  Even supposedly turning to torture to try to get what they want – er, excuse me, it’s meant to be the 1810s, not the 1530s!

The idea is that Nootka Sound is the subject of a dispute between Britain and America as part of the War of 1812.  However, that’s nonsense!  The Nootka Sound dispute was between Britain and Spain!  The United States wasn’t involved in it.  In fact, if any third country had interests in that neck of the woods at the time, it was Russia, which held Alaska and had its eye on getting stuck into the fur trade.  And it was all sorted twenty years before Taboo”s set.  Spain was reluctant to get into a fight with Britain unless France would get involved too, which France wouldn’t.  Then, once the French Revolutionary Wars broke out, Britain and Spain needed to work together and couldn’t afford to be getting into a conflict in the Pacific at the same time, so it was agreed that neither country would establish a settlement in the Nootka Sound area but that the ships of both would be able to use it.  It was all settled by 1794.

The US just wasn’t involved in it all, and it certainly had nothing to do with the War of 1812.  The programme did mention Spanish North America, but Spain had pretty much backed off from anywhere that far north by then.  And the Oregon Question, the issue of the western border between the US and Canada, which did sour Anglo-American relations and dragged on until the 1840s, didn’t kick off until well after the War of 1812.  All sorts of things did go on during the War of 1812 – the Americans invading Ontario and planning to attack Montreal as well, Britain attacking Washington and, famously, burning down the White House. the tragic defeat of the Tecumseh Confederacy and with it probably the end of any hopes of a Native American state in what’s now United States land, Francis Scott Key writing The Star-Spangled Banner, the Battle of New Orleans (which took place after peace’d been agreed, but the message didn’t get there on time!  I’ve been round that battlefield twice.) and everyone annoying everyone else’s ships, but nothing that involved the Pacific North West.  You cannot just go around picking an international incident, changing one of the parties involved, and plonking it into the wrong time period!  Gah!!

Then there’s the question of the East India Company.  According to this series, it’s some sort of terrifying organisation which is dead set on world domination.  There are a lot of those theories about.  Most of them involve either religious organisations, like the Jesuits, or secretive societies, like the Rosicrucians.  They’re all twaddle.  And there isn’t even one of those theories about the East India Company: it’s been made up for the purposes of the series!  Yes, it dominated a vast amount of world trade, but it certainly wasn’t the big bad force that it’s being presented as here.  And it was certainly never after Nootka Sound!

The East India Company was not involved in the “Pacific North West” area.  That was the North West Company’s territory.  The clues are in the names!  The theory in the series is that the East India Company wanted Nootka Sound because of the Pacific trade routes to China.  But the Pacific trade with China mainly involved furs, and the East India Company was not involved with the Pacific fur trade.  That was the domain of the North West Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company.  The North West Company and the East India Company didn’t get on, because the EIC wouldn’t let any other British company trade through Canton (Guangzhou), but the EIC didn’t get involved on the NWC’s turf.

The EIC, at this time, was busily trying to get as much Bengal opium into China as possible.  To pay for tea.  Well, OK, silks and other stuff as well, but no-one really needs silks, and everyone needs tea!  Funny to think that tea wasn’t really being grown in India until a bit later on – because “Indian tea” is what I think of as proper tea, whereas “Chinese tea” is more that stuff that smells as if someone’s put pot pourri in it.  I think Chinese tea’s supposed to be posher.  There’s a scene in an Enid Blyton book in which a very snooty character – shortly before being pushed into a swimming pool by a Naughty French Girl – complains vociferously about being given Indian tea instead of Chinese tea, and any mention of the differences between the two always makes me think of that :-).  Anyway, to get back to the point, opium had to be smuggled across the Indo-Chinese border because the Chinese authorities had banned its import.  So taking it by sea from Canada would have been impossible.  And taking opium from India to China via Canada would have made absolutely no economic sense anyway.

Gah!

The programme does have a weird sort of Gothic appeal, and there’s nothing else on on a Saturday night after Casualty anyway, but the way they’ve completely distorted history to suit themselves is doing my head in!   A lot of that goes on in books, films and TV series, but most of them draw the line at moving an international incident to a period over twenty years later and changing one of the countries involved!  Not to mention the bizarre portrayal of the East India Company.  What next?!  Moving Bosworth Field into the Hundred Years’ War?  Moving the Battle of New Orleans into the Mexican War?  Gah and double gah!  Very Silly Indeed.  So there!!

 

Anne of Green Gables – ITV 3

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Word PressI got rather confused about this, because there’s a new Anne of Green Gables mini-series coming out, and I thought that this was the first episode of it … whereas in actual fact it was a one-off “TV film”.  I hope the mini-series is as good as this, because this film was a wonderful adaptation of the first book in the series.  Ella Ballentine was brilliant as Anne (although the red hair and freckles were very obviously fake – I’m sure they could have been made to look more natural!) and the rest of the cast were all very much true to the book.  It followed the plot of the book very closely, and it came all across very well.

I was going to say that I was confused by Marilla having an Irish accent but, having done some research (I haven’t yet made it to the Maritime Provinces), I’ve found that the Prince Edward Island accent is very close to an Irish accent.  So now I’m just wondering why everyone else didn’t sound Irish as well!

My one quibble was that Anne’s class at school sang “God Save The King”.  That puts events into the reign of Edward VII (1901-1910).  The book was published in 1908, which was indeed during Edwardian times, but, later on in the series, Anne’s grown-up sons and the sweetheart of one of her daughters go off to fight in the First World War.  Anne’s nearly 50 when war breaks out, so she must have been at school in the 1870s.  However, no-one’s quite sure when the earlier books are meant to be set, and it’s very unlikely that L M Montgomery wrote the first book with the intention of bringing the First World War into a book set nearly 40 years later!   So never mind :-).

Oh dear, I feel so old now – it seems like about five minutes since I was watching the 1980s series, and reassuring my sister, who hadn’t read the books, that there was no need to worry, Anne and Gilbert would definitely end up together!  Having read some of the previews of the forthcoming new series, which I gather is due to be shown in Canada at some point in 2017 and will hopefully been taken up by one of the British channels very soon afterwards, I’ve got a horrible feeling that it isn’t going to stick to the original storylines.  Boo!  So watch this film, and enjoy it.  It’s great!

 

Daughters of the Dominion by Bessie Marchant

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Word PressAnother Bessie Marchant book set in Canada, but this one was a bit more down to earth: no-one was rescued from a watery grave or found that their fisherman husband was actually an earl!  However, Our Heroine of this novel did bravely and single-handedly foil a robbery at a railway depot, having earlier saved several people with her wonderful nursing skills.  This one was set in western Canada, in the age of mining and the golden age of the railroads – usually a time and place thought of as a man’s world, but the main character, Nell, and her friend Gertrude, both telegraph operators, played a very important part in their communities, as did several other women.

At one point, Nell thought of going to university and studying for a profession, which would have been daring enough for a woman to do at that time but probably still considered reasonably ladylike; but, instead, she opened up her own business, selling pies to the miners and railwayman … and made a roaring success of it!  Scarlett O’Hara would have approved 🙂 – but Nell and Gertrude, unlike Scarlett, managed to do it all without ever even seeming unladylike.  Of course, in the end they both got married, but not before they’d both, Nell in particular, shown that, to quote Janis Joplin, a woman can be tough!  Bessie Marchant’s heroines show very well that a woman hold her own in a male-dominated environment, in a genre and setting usually dominated by male heroes; and the books are genuinely entertaining as well.  I shall be on the lookout for more of them!

A Countess from Canada by Bessie Marchant

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Word PressAh, that wonderful feeling when you serendipitously stumble across a book by an author you’ve not encountered before, thoroughly enjoy it, and then find out that the same author’s written many more!   This is really good stuff, if you like old-fashioned stories (and are willing to overlook a few things of a less-than-politically-correct nature).  Think a fair bit of GA Henty but without the military bits, a bit of Elinor M Brent-Dyer but without anyone taking months to recover from their daring escapades, a bit of Laura Ingalls Wilder, and a touch of Jane Austen … if it’s not too unfair to talk about a very good author in terms of a list of others.

It’s a classic Victorian adventure story, set in a dramatic location (a backwoods/fishing community on a remote part of the Hudson Bay), with plenty of action and derring-do and few well-placed reminders of the need for honourable behaviour at all times.  However, where it stands out is that the main character is female.  The wonderful Katherine, never stopping and never complaining trudges through the snow, rows her boat through storms and ice floes, deals with all manner of people and does all manner of back-breaking labour as she keeps her family’s store going in order to support herself, her ailing father and her siblings and young nieces.  And, of course, there are the daring rescues.  She first meets the man she will eventually marry when she rescues him from a watery grave.  How cool (no pun intended) is that – she rescues him :-).  Then, later on, she rescues him again, and rescues someone else into the bargain!  Not to mention the time she catches two men trying to steal her provisions, and ends up rescuing them from wolves.   However, she never comes across as being too perfect, or at all annoying: she’s a character whom you find yourself genuinely liking.

The romance is interesting too, involving a lot of misunderstandings about exactly who’s interested in whom – not quite Jane Austen, but still quite well done.  Then there’s a sub-plot about her father and the wrong he imagined he’d done one of their neighbours, and there are various minor sub-plots involving other neighbours.  It’s all set against the backdrop of a hard-working and sometimes difficult existence, which comes across very well.

One gripe, though – how utterly daft to give the ending away in the title!  Whilst it was fairly obvious that Our Hero was not destined to spend his life being a subsistence fisherman, and also fairly obvious that he wouldn’t find out about his inheritance until after Our Heroine had already agreed to marry him and made a romantic speech about love being more important than money, there were no actual hints in the text about a title until almost the end.  So why give the game away in the book’s name?!

Oh well!  Lovely book even so, especially considering that it was free.  Sadly, only a few of Bessie Marchant’s books are available for free download from either Amazon or Project Gutenberg, and I really can’t justify spending any more money on books until my TBR pile is a bit less Everest-like, but I look forward to discovering more of them in the future.  Smiley faces – 🙂 🙂 🙂 !

The Trade by Fred Stenson

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Word Press“The Trade” of the title is the beaver fur trade in Canada, and this book, based on the lives of real people involved in it, is set between 1822 and 1867, when the trade was going into decline.  It’s an ambitious and panoramic novel, covering 45 years and many different aspects of life at that time, but it’s all too bitty.  It jumps from one set of people to another,  from one person’s viewpoint to another’s, and there are some big gaps in time, and unfortunately it all ends up feeling rather disjointed.  I never felt as if I got to know any of the characters properly.  It was interesting, but it didn’t go into enough depth for me and I wasn’t able to feel that I’d really got into it.  Oh well, never mind!

Away by Jane Urquhart

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Word PressJane Urquhart did the same in this book as she did in The Stone Carvers, which was to juxtapose two very different themes and try to make them into one story.  Again, I don’t think it really worked.  This book was supposed to be about the experiences of Irish immigrants in Canada, and some sort of way of enabling Irish-Canadians to discover their heritage; but all it really was was the reinforcement of two rather unhelpful stereotypes.

The first was the stereotype of the fey (not that she ever actually used the word “fey”, come to think about it) red-haired (why are fey people always depicted as having red hair?) Irish girl in a remote part of the countryside.  That’s where the title “Away” came from – the lady in question, when she started acting strangely after coming across a drowned sailor, was apparently literally away with the fairies, and all her family and friends apparently believed this.  It’s the romantic-ish idea that some people, although most of them in late Victorian and Edwardian times rather than in the 21st century, had of Ireland, and indeed the Scottish Highlands and some other parts of the British Isles, as being full of myths and legends and the wee folk and people who believed in it all.  Writing a book about that sort of thing can work, but not when set alongside the harsh reality of people emigrating to Canada because of the Potato Famine.

The second was the stereotype of the feckless Irish male sitting around in the pub all day, doing very little work, ranting and raving about the injustices done to Ireland by England, and then getting involved in violence at a political meeting.  It’s not exactly a positive stereotype, and I was quite surprised that someone with Irish ancestry would have chosen to use it.  However, it then turned out that Mr Feckless Ranter was actually a spy, who was just pretending to be like that in order to spy on the Canadian Fenians – in between seducing the daughter of Mrs Fey Away With The Fairies, who then went away with the fairies herself.  However, he then did a bunk, and the book then ended rather abruptly.

Somewhere in the background were the husband and son of Mrs Fey Away With The Fairies, the father and brother of Miss Fey Away With The Fairies.  The former tried to educate children in poverty-stricken rural Ireland, before making a new life for himself in Canada.  The latter worked hard, married a hard-working woman, had children, and generally fulfilled the much happier image of an immigrant settling into a new country and making good there.  That’s a story that’s been told many times before, but it would still have made a much better story of Irish immigration to Canada, and of Ireland generally, than being away with the fairies or getting drunk in the pub.  Very odd choice of storylines.