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Voyageurs

by Margaret Elphinstone

The best historical fiction is worth reading for two reasons: it tells a good story, and it imparts a lot of information painlessly. Scottish writer Margaret Elphinstone’s Voyageurs almost succeeds on both counts.

Mark Greenhow, a young Quaker in the north of England, leaves his farm and family in 1810 to search for his sister Rachel, reported lost in the wilds of North America around Lake Michigan. No matter that she has married a non-Quaker and been disowned by the local Quaker meeting – Mark feels compelled to cross the Atlantic, winter in Montreal, and head for the heart of the continent when the first fur-trade canoes set out in the spring.

He tells his story in a journal kept during his quest. The U.S. and England are about to go to war, so in addition to the usual difficulties, Mark must deal with war fever. He discovers Rachel’s husband is trying to get Indians to side with the British, and at first he suspects that his brother-in-law did not search for her vigorously enough when she disappeared. His story is enough to keep the reader turning pages, and when he describes what it’s like to paddle 14 hours a day or kill a bear or follow a nearly invisible path through the forest, the reader is rushed along on a wave of excitement as irresistible as a river roaring down rapids.

Elphinstone’s research on the time period is solid, too, but she sometimes fills in the religious, cultural, and political background by having Mark record over-long conversations in which one character explains something to another. The novel is also undermined by the conceit Elphinstone uses to set the story up. Elphinstone tells the reader that she found Mark’s journal in her attic, complete with the commentary of a mature Mark recorded in distracting footnotes. The novel would have been much better if she’d cut the multi-layered artifice and told it straight and plain, the Quaker way.