In her fifth novel, Vancouver Island author Pauline Holdstock turns her attention to a largely ignored and overlooked part of Canadian history: the lives of native women who lived at the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Prince of Wales fort. These women became “country wives” of many of the European traders who worked in Churchill, Manitoba, during the 18th century.
Holdstock’s central figure is Molly Norton, a mixed-blood woman who is the daughter of one of the fort’s governors. Molly also becomes the companion of famed explorer Samuel Hearne. The novel opens with Molly reflecting back on her life. The story then traces the lives of her grandfather, her father, and Hearne.
The novel shines in its portrayal of the day-to-day hardships of early Canadians and the lush descriptions of landscape. Unfortunately, Holdstock documents the experiences of many of the men who lived in the fort, taking the focus off of Molly, the most interesting figure in the novel. The passages detailing the workings of the fort are more appropriate for a textbook than a novel. The activities of the characters are recounted rather than dramatized, and their motivations and emotions are never explored or fleshed out. The result is a disappointing historical portrait, beautifully written.