I spent a decade as a historian/museum executive. During my tenure, I was blessed with the opportunity to study Michigan’s settlement era in depth. That time period, from the mid-18th to mid-19th century, is my favorite era in history. Corduroy roads, birch bark canoes, fur traders, settlers, Jesuits, voyageurs, girding oaks, military outposts, trade with the natives. Michigan was still a wild frontier, unexplored save for the coast. It was this period that Longfellow evoked in his famous epic The Song of Hiawatha. Yet scarce few other works were set during this time and at this place.
This summer I was introduced to a novel written by British novelist Margaret Elphinstone. First published in England in 2003, the novel was a critical favorite of the British press. In the US, however, it was barely noticed. And there are compelling reasons why it failed here. It takes place during a forgotten American conflict, the War of 1812. The first half of the novel is set on the Canadian side of the Great Lakes. It’s narrated by a straight laced, peace-loving Quaker. There are long periods of conversations where characters recount their lives.
While these all may seem red flags against the book, Elphinstone instead weaves them all into a beautiful, epic story that paints an historically accurate portrait of the Great Lakes region at the dawn of American civilization.
The story’s hero is Mark Greenhow, a British Quaker journeying from England into the forests of the Great Lakes region in search of his missing sister Rachel. Rachel was traveling into the Indian lands with a devout aunt, spreading the Light of God amongst the natives. During her journey she fell in love with a fur trader named Alan McKenzie and married him, causing Rachel to be disowned by the Quaker society in England and her family. Mark feels obliged to find and rescue his sister, so he sets off to the Canadian frontier. “She was never one to worry about the way back,” Mark writes in his journal. “I knew, though, from early on, that it was my place to worry about it. Rachel expected that of me, and so did my parents; indeed, it is what I expected of myself.”
The book’s focus is on Mark’s journey through the wilderness of Ontario and Michigan as the drums of war were beginning their song. In 1809, the US and England were embroiled in a nasty trade dispute that caught fire and led to the War of 1812.
The War of 1812 is America’s most obscure and forgotten conflict. Most Americans are only vaguely aware of why we fought the war or who the enemy even was. The roots of this war, however, are clearly detailed throughout Voyageurs. It was in the Great Lakes region, primarily Michigan, that the British were arming Indian fighters against American settlers. It was the ‘hawks’ from the Northwest Territories (present-day Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota) that pushed for a deceleration of war against Great Britain and an invasion of Canada.
Mark’s pursuit of his sister not only takes him through dense and dangerous forest, but also through a political climate steeped with treachery. Confronted by Indians and fur-traders who torture their prisoners and suspect spies around every tree, Mark struggles with his Quaker pacifism and religious convictions.
I highly recommend this novel to anyone with even a passing interest in the rich history of Northern Michigan and the Great Lakes. Elphinstone writes her novel in a plain, simple style that fits her plain, simple hero. Voyageurs is long, and it starts a bit slow. But by the end of the book, you are longing for another chapter and not ready to for the novel to end.
You can purchase Voyageurs through Amazon or at local booksellers.