No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Sunday, October 29, 2006

#99: Voyageurs -- Margaret Elphinstone

I think this was my third attempt at reading Voyageurs: on previous tries, I got stuck before I'd really got to know Mark Greenhow, Elphinstone's personable first-person narrator. This time I devoured the book: perhaps because I was more able to relax into the slowness of the prose, the bleakness of the setting; perhaps because James Morrow's The Last Witchfinder covered a little of the same territory from a markedly different angle.

Canada, 1810: Rachel Greenhow, a young Quaker woman, goes missing in the wilderness after the death of her child. When news of her presumed death reaches her family in Cumberland, her parents are devastated: but Mark, her brother, is determined to discover his sister's fate, and he sets out alone on an epic voyage.

Mark is fascinating because he's so firmly rooted in two things: his faith and the landscape in which he grew to manhood. His narrative's presented as the work of an older Mark, annotating and editing the travel journal of his twenty-three year old self, sitting at his desk and looking out over the fells. There's much made of the difference between the wilderness of Western Canada and the high clean places of the Lake District: Mark reminds us, again and again, that he is used to a landscape from which one can look out. The endless forests and dark woods, the Indian trails, the bitter winters and rough company of voyageurs -- fur trappers and adventurers, conveying their spoils and trade goods by canoe and portage across distances that seem vast to Mark -- are as unknowable and forbidding to Mark as they must have been to his sister.

But he's not alone on his quest. Rachel's husband, Alan -- a Scotsman, with several strings to his bow -- agrees to accompany Mark. In the end it's Mark's nature, and his faith, that produce results: but he couldn't have made his journey without the aid of Alan, who's at home in the wilderness: who becomes a staunch and lifelong friend to his newfound brother-in-law despite the vast gulf of belief, of temperament, of experience between them.

In some respects it's a simple narrative -- yet there are so many unanswered questions, so many issues that Mark skirts or merely presents as reasonable fact but which have questionable morality. I'm not convinced that he actually likes his sister very much: as a symbol, a cipher, she's important to him, but there's a strong sense of ... not quite rivalry, but awkwardness.

In the end Mark triumphs because of what he is -- Nigigwetagad, the man in grey, the pacifist who won't fight (except with good cause), the polar opposite of incendiary Alan. His faith informs everything he does, even the writing of his journal, which is interspersed with rueful observations about his own failings. Vanity, lust, anger. Pride. He spends a lot of time thinking about his faith; wondering why, when the Society of Friends allows women to speak out in a way that's unheard of elsewhere, Rachel still felt silenced. "To begin with," says Alan, "I loved her capacity for silence." And later, "I respected her silence since I had no means to break it." Not all silences, Mark learns, are good silences, the silence of Meeting where truth comes in.

There's a certain coyness to Mark's 'footnotes': they keep us guessing as to the identity of his wife, right until the end of the novel, and there's no real reason (save literary suspense) for her name to be omitted. And the framing narrative, in which 'M.R.E.' discovers the journal hidden away between the rafters, allows a trick to be played with the ending.

Mark, despite his travels in Canada, never loses his Cumbrian accent. He writes of the 'glisky rime' of ice on Lake Michigan; of his memories of being 'a little lad', and of his sister's bairn; of thee and thou, in a way that never seems quaint or forced. I like Mark a great deal.

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