1/ PRAIRIE FIRE REVIEW OF BOOKS
The Conquest of Canada: A Novel of Discovery
This engaging historical novel by Ontario writer Wendel Messer chronicles life in New France, the French settlement in Canada in the seventeenth century. Messer skillfully blends fact and fiction, incorporating actual historical figures such as the great explorer Samuel de Champlain into his narrative.
The principal theme of the novel is the encounter between the French and the Natives of Canada. Some tribeslike the Montagnais, the Algonkin, and the Huronare friendly to the French, while the Iroquois are sworn enemies.
Indeed, the threat of a slow death by unspeakable torture at the hands of the Iroquois hangs over the French settlement like a dark cloud. In lively, gripping prose, Messer depicts an assault on the settlement by the Iroquois that is successfully repulsed by the French.
Even the tribes with which the French have amicable relations, however, resist the attempt to convert them to Christianity. Priests and monks came to the new world explicitly to Christianize the Natives, and their lack of success causes them spiritual anguish. Messer portrays the priests and Champlain struggling to understand the meaning of their failed mission; they grapple with existential issues.
While this book can be read as an adventure story, it is essentially a novel of ideas. In addition to the priests struggle to understand their existential plight, Messer illustrates the debate between faith and science in a dialogue between a priest and a proponent of what, in the seventeenth century, was the new scientific methodology.
This novel can also be read as an exploration of the motives of French colonialism. There was, the author shows, a religious impulse and a commercial impulse. Some, like Champlain, were driven by a desire to explore, to discover new land. Messer underscores the multifaceted nature of French colonialism.
Messer is a gifted prose stylist whose descriptions of the natural world are particularly eloquent. Here is an example: The river St.-Jean seemed to hold in its black depths, and mirror from its crystal surface, the secrets of a thousand ages. Along the way, streams and rills met the river quietly, in dark recesses; and wary shadows crept to the water to drink. Trout sprang into the air to capture late flies stunned by the cold. The forest grew greener, thicker, and darker as Canada drew near. It was the heart of the eternal forest, and the river seemed to go on and on, for ever and ever. (285)
Messer has written a significant novel that evokes a dramatic era in Canadian history.
Graeme Voyer, the reviewer, is a Winnipeg writer.
Prairie Fire Press, Inc. 423-100 Arthur St. Artspace Winnipeg, MB R3B 1H3 www.prairiefire.ca
2/ CM Magazine: Review of Canadian
Published by The Manitoba Library Association ISSN 1201-9364
Hosted by the University of Manitoba.
CM . . . . Volume XIII Number 3 . . . . September 29, 2006
The Conquest of Canada: A Novel of Discovery.
Wendel Messer. Gravenhurst, ON: Breller Books, 2006. 474 pp., pbk., $29.95. ISBN 0-9730094-1-1. Subject Headings: Canada-History-To 1763 (New France)-Fiction. Acadia-Fiction. Grades 10 and up / Ages 15 and up. Review by Thomas F. Chambers. *****
Men, said La Tour, the mate was so good at making us chant, the Savages all shut up to hear us. They were awestruck, men. We saw them stand and gape in the light of their fires. We chanted, they were silent. There were a lot of Savages scratching their heads on the other side, you bet. Hé-hé-hé, Ai-ai-ai! Haloet-hé-hé, Ho-ho!
Hé-hé-hé, Ai-ai-ai!" cried Gilpin.
We took great comfort in that, men, being able to mimic the cries of those devils, knowing they had no hope of doing the same to us, because the civilized scale is not so easily imitated. We could act like them but they could not act like us. Theres a world of difference between a chant and a song. Oh, I tell you, we had some grand voices that night. For a while, we distracted them from their incantations altogether. They came and sat on the bank, straining their ears. When we rested, the Savages danced and chanted again. And when they paused, we took our turn once more. And so it went throughout the night, each side taking turns. We sang, they sang. We sang again. We were like two choirs practicing together. And yet, how strange it was, men. They intended to kill us.
The Conquest of Canada is like a vast canvas upon which a story has been painted. Often used in the past to depict battles between two great armies, such canvasses were the precursors of photographs and film. In this case, there are no great battles but a painting of early Canada filled with portraits of many of the individuals who peopled Acadia and Québec in the early years of the seventeenth century and the natives they encountered. These individuals include Samuel Champlain (the de is not used), the La ToursClaude and son Charlesand numerous native leaders. The French are engaged in such things as building settlements and travelling by canoe through the wilderness. The natives are engaged in activities such as feasting, trading furs, and occasionally attacking the settlers. It is a canvas of heroic proportions.
The story of The Conquest of Canada is about the early years of French activity in present day Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Québec. It portrays very realistically the problems the settlers faced, from the lack of supplies from France and occasional attacks by the Iroquois to the constant struggle to stay alive in the new world. It also shows the utter hopelessness of the missionaries attempts to convert the natives to Christianity.
The author, Wendel Messer, who previously wrote the highly acclaimed Sink: The Last Days of Driving, got his inspiration for his new book from Fortune & La Tour: The Civil War in Acadia, by M.A. MacDonald, published in 1983. Messer takes this story, and much more, and makes it come alive. The reader is transported back in time and becomes an eyewitness to this wonderful period in Canadian history. The Conquest of Canada is hard to put down and, judging the story by what history books tell us of the age of discovery, very accurate. Messer has a vivid imagination. His style is colourful and engaging as in the following example: “At the shock of the heat, the dead men sat up or rolled over, as if practicing for the inferno. A Turk and two Frenchmen rose upright and walked together with arms flailing and jaws wide open.” Messers book will appeal to anyone with an interest in history and to those who just like a good story.
Much of the book deals with the search for the relic of Eu, a fragment of bone from the body of Lawrence OToole, the patron saint of the Jesuit order, who died in Normandy. The relic was supposed to work miracles, and, therefore, finding it became an obsession of the Jesuits. Keeping its location secret was also an obsession of the Récollets, a Franciscan order sent to New France to convert the natives to Christianity. They feared, quite rightly as it turned out, that their failure to win any converts would result in the much more zealous Jesuits being sent to replace them.
The Jesuits had a greater impact on early Canada than the Récollets. Their rivalry is an interesting element of The Conquest. The former, with the support of powerful people in France, such as Cardinal Richelieu, eventually supplanted the Récollets. The reward for some of them, including Jean Brébeuf, who has a brief part in The Conquest, was torture and death at the hands of the Iroquois.
An interesting aspect of the story deals with the superstitious nature of Catholic theology at this time. A number of the characters in the story have dreams, which are interpreted according to the dreamers understanding of Catholic theology. This theology is always considered superior to that of the natives, which is believed to be witchcraft and the work of the devil. In fact, because of the French inability to convert natives, North America is considered to be "Beelzabubs domain." However, in The Conquest of Canada there is little to distinguish between French and native spirituality, hence the unwillingness of the natives to give up their beliefs for those of the French.
There are two maps in the book, one of Acadia (Nova Scotia and New Brunswick) and one of North America from present day Québec City to Lake Superior. They show the tribal lands of the native nations mentioned in the story as well as the routes of journeys taken by Champlain and others. They are useful, allowing the reader to grasp the magnitude of the effort required to cover great distances in seventeenth century North America. A few illustrations, such as the painting of Champlain taking leave of Brûlé on Lake Simcoe in 1615, as shown on Messers web site, would also have been welcomed.
Thomas F. Chambers, who lives in North Bay, ON, is a retired college teacher. To comment on this title or this review, send mail to email@example.com.
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