Into the Heart of the Country
Harper Collins, 2011
In 1693, an English man named Henry Kelsey wrote a poem about journeying into the heart of this country:
“Then up ye River I with heavy heart
Did take my way & from all English part
To live amongst ye Natives of this place
If god permits me for one two years space….” *
It wasn’t an uncommon thing to do at the time. But in 2011, we don’t often think back to that time.
We don’t often consider the conflict that erupted between indigenous peoples and the Europeans who depended upon the resources of this land (for subsistence or for profit), or ponder the intricacies of the relationship between need and greed, and the impact of that needing and greeding.
But even though we no longer live in a time when beaver hats are fashionable?
Even though the land that Henry Kelsey walked, and the country depicted in Pauline Holdstock’s novel as well, have been meticulously mapped and measured now?
Nonetheless, those conflicts, those resources, those relationships remain matters worth considering: they are relevant today. (See recent works by Hans Carlson and Christie Blatchford, two amongst many.)
And, yet, Into the Heart of the Country feels like a world apart.
“I did not expect the horizon to walk away from me. The vastness of the land was beyond my imagining.”
The novel opens with the voice of Molly Norton. She was born on this land. She has never been to the land her father called home, England. She has never seen a city, only a single stone building.
“All my world was the fort.” And, yet, even she does not comprehend the vastness of this country, when she first speaks to the reader.
As the narrative develop, however, Pauline Holdstock does a fine job of taking readers into that vastness. And, too, she pulls the reader into Molly’s experience of it, not only through Molly’s own words, but through the observations of her father and — later — her husband, characters who also inhabit their own dimensions.
Born to an English father and a Wêcîpwayân mother, Molly straddles both cultures. She is the reader’s invitation into a world elsewhere. She wears her deerskin beneath her English dress. She dreads — and dreams of — English life.
Her husband observes that she does not belong on the land. Her uncle, Matonabbee, says that living in a stone house would be, for him, like being “captured by a great enemy — and buried under a pile of rocks”.
Molly’s world may be the fort, but still she inhabits two places at once. Her husband recognizes this state, but he experiences it differently.
“It gave him great pleasure to be in two places at once. To be here within the massy walls of the fort, hearing the men arguing or laughing, hearing them sometimes sing, breathing the choky smoke of the too-green wood — to be here and at the same time to be out on the frozen lake, its level surface stretching away on both sides and ahead, behind, dotted with small island, each with its own perfect composition of slender pines, its own offering.”
Indeed, one of the aspects of this novel that is particularly interesting is the different way that status/race/sex influence its characters’ experiences.
And what makes this all-the-more interesting is the author’s insistence that nobody inhabits just one place — or, even, two places. Characters are complex and multi-dimensional. Boundaries are ever-shifting.
“The world was without definition. He could not tell if this hollow or that rise were near or far, if it were a furrow in the snow a few feet ahead or a fold in the land miles away.”
A changeable time. A changeable place. Into the Heart of the Country.
[* Drawn from the anthology Canadian Poetry: From the Beginnings through the First World War, edited by Carole Gerson and Gwendolyn Davies (M&S, 1994)]
Shortlisted in 2003 for Beyond Measure. And from M.G. Vassanji’s The Book of Secrets to Annbel Lyon’s The Golden Mean, historical novels have been shortlisted. Does a high page count work against her? It worked for Joseph Boyden, but most winners are shorter.
Mostly chronological structure across decades in the later 18thCentury. Narrative voice shifts, across time and space, but narrators are immediately identifiable, readily placed. The device that allows Molly Norton to speak to the reader is used sparingly but effectively.
Molly Norton’s voice is poetic and contrasts with the more matter-of-fact tone that characterizes the bulk of the narrative. Dialogue sparse, heralded with an extra-long, m-dash (an mmmmm-dash?): functional and believable. I was expecting prose as dense as blizzard snow, but not at all!
Prince of Wales Fort — in what is now Manitoba, Canada – and surrounding countryside. (See images above: on the left, the fort drawn by Samuel Hearne himself (he’s in the story!), and on the right the foundations of the fort still visible today.) Also a small portion in England.
Readers are engaged through the characters’ personal relationships. The late 1700s don’t feel so far away when your first experience of them is a wife pressed up against her husband’s back in bed for warmth, then stretching to peer at him over his shoulder and ask a question.
Readers wanted:You see more grey in the world than black or white. There’s some history geek in you. Perhaps you’ve been spotted in the wild yourself, browsing bookstore shelves with titles like Race/Political and Gender/Feminist Studies.
Would you have answered (or have you answered) such a call for readers?
John Steffler’s The Afterlife of George Cartwright (1992)
Fred Stenson’s The Trade (2000)
Bernard Assiniwi’s The Beothuk Saga (Trans. Wayne Grady 2002)