Monday, June 18, 2018

Bellewether by Susanna Kearsley

"Most people, when you get to know them, are not what you're afraid they'll be." M. de Sabran, a French soldier held on parole, his word of honour, New York, 1762.

I love the work of Susanna Kearsley, and found this novel exceptional. Portraying universal dilemmas, it affords glimpses into the social history of a decisive period in North America: the Seven Years War, the fall of Quebec, and the taxation policies that eventually led to the American Revolution. When two French officers are billeted at Lydia's home, she is forced into the company of "enemies." Yet by observing the different characters and outlooks if the Quebecker and the Frenchman, and their contrast from her Acadian neighbour, she comes to realize that snap judgments and simple characterizations are unrealistic and unfair.

In this part of the novel, the reader also meet Loyalists, traders, farmers, Spanish sailors, slaves and slave-owners. Language and cultural barriers are rife in this novel -- even the battle site Fort Oswego is known in French by the quite different name of Fort Chouaguen. Fortunately, when Lydia is nearly caught up in a New York riot over illegal trading practices, the Canadian-born French marine does not need English to shield her from physical harm.

The modern characters reveal more recent north-south history with interesting parallels. Charley, the protagonist, is the daughter of an American whose family disowned him when he crossed into Canada to avoid being drafted to fight in Vietnam. When her brother dies in a small New York town, she leaves her Ontario home to take a job and spend time with her bereaved young cousin there. Charley's work establishing a historic house museum eventually forces her to confront her estranged grandmother, a wealthy widow who chairs the local branch of the Daughters of Liberty. The old woman she finally meets is certainly not the monster Charley feared she would be.

Sam, a contractor who is doing the restoration work on the museum, is wise, calm and easygoing. The son of a Mohawk ironworker, a connector (interesting double entendre), Sam comments in an offhand way about the human tendency to classify others into overly simple categories. His own history and ethnicity defy all attempts to pigeonhole him. With roots on both sides of the 49th parallel, he is the grandson of two residential school survivors. "'I got a bit of everything,'" he tells Charley, "'Mohawk, English, French, Oneida, Scottish, Catholic, Protestant -- you name it.'"

With roots as mixed as those of part-indigenous novelist Joseph Boyden, Sam has learned to remain unfazed by what people say to and about him, and he has also learned when to keep his mouth shut -- an admirable trait we'd be wise to emulate. He's a positive role model who expresses the multiplicity of our human roots and origins. Through Sam's calm and non-judgmental comments, Kearsley handily exposes a bane of our era: constant efforts by ignorant people and politicians to pigeonhole individuals for their own ends.

Some of the novel's big themes are also expressed through the displaced Acadian farmer Pierre Boudreau. Though many of his English-speaking neighbours do not trouble learn his surname, they know they can rely on the translations of "French Peter." A survivor of many hard blows, Pierre is observant, philosophical and kind. His advice to M. de Sabran, not to look back but to "grow roots where you are standing" is astonishingly similar to similar advice given by his abbott to the American monk Thomas Merton: "Bloom where you are planted."

Of course the book contains a ghost, but this the supernatural aspect of the tale plays a smaller role here than in earlier works. Indeed, one could almost interpret the ghost as the part of Charley that has the ability to go quiet and intuit the presence of the past.

The fact that this volume contains material extraneous to the story reveals the tale's closeness to the writer's heart. Descended from Loyalists, the author learned that her ancestors owned slaves, and she devotes the book to them in apology and to honour their memory.

In an extra section, About the Characters, Kearsley reveals her hope and optimism by citing the "highly respected and influential philosopher" the Earl of Shaftesbury, who believed in the innate human moral sense, the ability to know right from wrong. She also quotes his comments to the effect that the love of doing good is reason enough to do it, and that prejudice is a "mist" that sadly dims our vision.

In this passage, and also in the novel itself, she refers to the Truth and Reconciliation process, and quotes the final report of the Commission, which says that "The Arts help to restore human dignity and identity in the face of injustice."

History casts long shadows. Thank you, Susanna Kearsley, for casting your light on some of them.

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