Fiction that draws too deeply on Canadian history tends very often to be banal and derivative, so I was hardly enthused when I learned that Bill Gaston’s The Order of Good Cheer features 17th-century explorer Samuel de Champlain.
Any sense of drudgery soon fell away, however. For the most part, Gaston’s newest novel is an entertaining imagining of people and relationships, rather than a fanciful fusillade of facts. Though he’s clearly done his research, Gaston’s use of Champlain is really more for the idea of an explorer rather than the actual historical figure. In the book, Champlain and his men are isolated in their lonely settlement in 1606. Gaston examines their relationships, but also theorizes as to how they kept insanity and depression at bay through a long winter. The Order of Good Cheer, a series of feasts, was one of Champlain’s ideas to ward off such evils.
As talented as Gaston is, if this was the only story in this book, it would ultimately fall flat. The novel’s parallel story concerns Andy Winslow, a modern-day working-class drone whose whole life could be termed “a rut.” He is as trapped and isolated in Prince Rupert, B.C., as Champlain was in Annapolis Royal. Both men are intellectuals, set apart from the common working-class man by their knowledge. While Champlain longs to be off in search of new land to map, to literally create the world, Andy is content to watch out his window as the world moves around him, and feels as if it creates him through its movements. While Champlain’s knowledge is from experience, Andy’s is all from books. Andy longs for the world to come to him, and is even waiting for his high school sweetheart, Laura, to come back to Prince Rupert, though the wait has lasted nearly 20 years.
Gaston’s quick cuts and crisp writing help both stories build in drama and depth, and both sides are fully compelling as the novel’s narratives wind closer and closer, culminating in Andy’s own Order of Good Cheer. The final chapter is redemptive in its carnival atmosphere, which is reminiscent of Carrier’s La Guerre, Yes Sir in its frivolity and raucous celebrations. Ultimately, Gaston’s novel is all about the human quest to understand the emptiness and grandeur both within and without.