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 tribes—like the Montagnais, the Algonkin, and the Huron—are 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 zose. 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.”

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


CM Magazine: Review of Canadian Materials:

The Conquest of Canada: A Novel of Discovery

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 La Tours—Claude and son Charles—and 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 The 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.” Messer’s 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 O’Toole, 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.

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.

Highly Recommended. *****

Published by the Manitoba Library Association ISSN 1201-9364 Hosted by the University of Manitoba. CM, Volume XIII, Number 3, September 29, 2006
Subject Headings: Canada-History-To 1763 (New France) -Fiction. Acadia-Fiction. Grades 10 and up / Ages 15 and up.
Review by Thomas F. Chambers, a retired college teacher.

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Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained.
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