Maps, manuscripts, canoes and chipmunks breathe life into epic

August 1, 2003

Seeking inspiration for her latest historical novel, Margaret Elphinstone abandoned the library for Canada's wild waterways. Olga Wojtas hears about her voyage.

Mark Greenhow, the narrator of Voyageurs, the latest novel by Strathclyde University professor of writing Margaret Elphinstone, is a young Cumbrian Quaker farmer in the early 19th century. His sister, a missionary, has disappeared in the uncharted Canadian wilderness and he goes in search of her, travelling with the voyageurs, the men who canoe the immense fur-trade route over rivers and the Great Lakes.

Some of the novel's most atmospheric passages are about his journey: "So many things I remember ... the dark figures of our voyageurs silhouetted by the fire at night. The scent of resin in the smoke. The pattern of pine branches overhead, and the stars between. Nights full of stars and strange sounds carried across still water. I mind well how I first heard the call of the loon, and it sounded to me like a lost soul in the wilderness. I remember the howling of wolves in the night forest - but these I never saw until the winter came - and diverse rustlings in the undergrowth. I remember how the chipmunks came foraging right into our tent and even into my pockets, where one of the little pests ate up the last of the ginger biscuits."

The words are Greenhow's but the experience, down to the thieving chipmunks, is Elphinstone's. Her research for the book included an expedition along the Ottawa River, the original trans-Canada highway, in a replica voyageur trading canoe.

"Canoes can get to what nothing else can," she says. "Paddles don't take up much room, not like oars, and the draught is incredibly shallow, just a few inches. You can go along little creeks. You can go through swamp."

Elphinstone, an experienced canoeist and hillwalker, also hiked in wilderness areas to get a sense of the landscape her characters encountered, which she at times found frightening. "Hillwalking in Scotland, I'm used to seeing out," she says. "In the forest, it's like the mist is always down. You begin to feel you're lost. My hero is like me, not a forest person, and how much more scary it would have been when forests covered the continent."

She dismisses any notion that she suffered hardship during the guided canoe trip, which involved early-morning starts and camping on islands in tents.

"We did it terribly easily. We just touched the edges. We had picnic lunches on lovely beaches. I describe things in the book that I have certainly not done. I've never shot a rapid in my life. No way."

But a canoeing expedition is certainly tough, even for someone as fit as Elphinstone. "You feel it in the shoulders. The older you get, the more you feel it in your knees," she says. "If it's rough, the lower the centre of gravity the better, and often you kneel."

And travelling on the Ottawa was very different from canoeing on Loch Lomond. "It's that sense of wilderness and space, and there really are wild animals, big animals, out there. (In Britain) we usually find nature quite tame."

A recurring symbol in the book is the bear, representing something huge and unknown. Elphinstone is relieved that she saw bears only from a distance, but she has incorporated her aunt's experience in Newfoundland. "She was picking blueberries and looked up to see a bear that was also eating the blueberries and had just seen her. They both went, 'Aarghh!' and rushed off in opposite directions," she says.

"When it comes down to it, it's luck. I was with my cousin and came to a notice, 'Beware of Bears'. I told him that if you meet a bear, you're supposed to lie down and pretend to be dead. He said: 'That's great - you lie down and pretend to be dead, and while it's eating you, I'll run like hell'."

Elphinstone conceived the novel during a year's secondment to Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant. She was struck by the newness of the city, whose "old" buildings dated from the 1830s, and by the links with home. "People kept saying: 'My family comes from Scotland - do you know the MacDonalds?' I began to think the next novel had to be about emigration and the contrast between Michigan and Scotland."

Her publishers, Canongate, were enthusiastic about the project, and Strathclyde gave her a year's research leave, part sabbatical and part Scottish Arts Council grant, which allowed her to return to CMU as an adjunct professor. While her summer research was canoeing and trekking, her winter research involved trudging through the snow to the university's Clarke Library and the state archive.

"I find libraries terribly exciting," she says. "Just as exciting as the Ottawa River. I love that process of discovery. I love finding the manuscript sources, things that have never been published."

Elphinstone based her hero's journey on an 1805 map that showed Michigan before it was settled: by 1834, lots had been allocated, and the region was no longer empty. She found that after the war of independence, Quaker communities in America were encouraged to settle in Canada. She then put her Quaker hero, with his religious belief in non-violence, in the middle of the 1812 war fought between the British in Canada and the US. "It was a war about which I knew very little. My 1812 war was Napoleon."

The Scottish connection came through her discovery that the Hudson's Bay Company had initially had a powerful rival, the North West Company, mainly composed of Scots who emigrated to Canada during the Highland Clearances.

Another key character is Alan Mackenzie from Lochalsh, who becomes a clerk in the company. "It's the history-fiction borderline. Alan is a fictional character, but the Mackenzies were leaving Lochalsh at that period," she says.

"I think to be a credible historical novelist, you've got to research your history. What you do with it is not what a historian does, but the research is the same."

Elphinstone cherishes a comment by Hermann Palsson, the translator of the Icelandic sagas: "The difference between history and fiction is not one of fact but one of form." She anticipated tensions in trying to research the necessary Native American history, but was warmly supported by Native American experts at CMU. They came up with a traditional Ojibwa name for a key female character, "Waase'aaban", which means "light all around".

"I learnt a lot of things," she says. "I talked about chiefs, making a Highland connection, and they said this was quite an imperialistic word and they would use the word 'leader'," Elphinstone says. But while whites carefully referred to "Native Americans" and "tribal lands", the Native Americans called themselves "Indians" and talked about "the res" for reservation.

"They never said: 'You should not be doing this'. They said: 'We want you to do it right. Don't show us as the stereotype of the half-naked warrior.

Yes, there were braves and, yes, they fought, but show our real lives'."

Although she admits to "worrying hugely" about getting things right, she jokes that the novel's immense scope is a protection against criticism. No single person is expert in Quaker history, the Highland Clearances, the 1812 war and the North West Company, she says. "So if I go and read the (individual) experts and pull them all together, nobody can say the whole thing is wrong from beginning to end."

Voyageurs is published on August 21 by Canongate (£10.99).

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