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!

 

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!