Saturday, 18 October 2008

A real trip

(NB – anyone who's come here for a Martin Simpson review...please get yourselves down to the post below. Thank-you.)

Back on 11th August this year I wrote a post about my slightly Quaker background and posted my poem 'What you can learn from Quakers'. In one of the comments that followed Colin Will recommended the book 'Voyageurs' by Margaret Elphinstone because he thought it might be of interest (it's about Quakers in the nineteenth century, amongst other things) . Like a good girl I went to the library here in Montrose and was lucky enough to find a copy of the novel waiting for me on the shelf (it was published by Scottish publishers Canongate in 2003). I've just finished reading it and this must be International Week of Enthusiasm or something because 'Voyageurs' is a fascinating read and I insist – if you haven't already read it you MUST go and get hold of a copy NOW!

I haven't read a huge number of historical novels to be honest - I suppose mostly I read either modern novels set (more or less) now or classic novels set (more or less) in their own period. I did read a few of those cheap, silly historical novels when I was a teenager and I remember a lot of corsets and master-takes-slave-girl or mistress-takes-slave-boy (or now and again mistress looks at slave girl in interested way) scenes but I have to say they didn't make me long to explore the genre. However I am aware that there are also some very fine historical novels out there too and this one, I'm glad to say, is an example of how it SHOULD be done. It is an adventure story, an insight into life in Britain and North America in the early 1800s (from all sides and perspectives) and a very thoughtful novel about belief and love and more or less everything else you can think of. It is exactly what a great, big, fat 466 page novel should be – it is important and all-encompassing and clever and mindbogglingly impressive in its scope.

The story concerns Mark Greenhow, a Quaker and a farmer from the north-west of England whose sister, Rachel, has disappeared in 1809 in the US and Canadian border region. War is breaking out between Britain and the US as Mark journeys over the Atlantic and deep into unknown territory to try and find his sister. As he is a Quaker (and therefore a committed pacifist) this is a strange time for this character to be in this strange place and it makes for a really interesting tale as Mark travels with traders on land and water to hunt for Rachel. He meets all kinds of people (indigenous, immigrant and some of mixed parentage and culture) and he faces all kinds of situations that challenge his strongly held Quaker beliefs. Even if you have no knowledge or interest in Quakerism (or indeed any religion...you know what a heathen I am, deep down) the issues here will interest anyone who has ever thought about honour, love, simplicity, survival, war, peace or happiness (and that should cover most of you, I think).

I particularly loved all the details of Mark's travels. One thing I hate about modern travelling is the artificial or even superficial nature of it – you move but you can't even tell you're moving, you go everywhere so fast that you see nothing on the way – so I loved all the details of the horrible, slow Atlantic crossing, the long, slow canoe trips in Canada, the great long walks to get anywhere (hurray for great long walks!). I know it's easy to romanticise the past but the novel doesn't do this - that's just me...I am a luddite with travel if nothing else...I would happily uninvent the aeroplane tomorrow. Elphinstone (an academic) is far more sensible and I would say she gives a fair picture of the time – neither rose-coloured spectacles for the pretty period past nor dirt-smeared lenses for the filth and lack of air-conditioning - just a good balance, a total picture.

Whilst it took me a little time to get into this novel once the story really got going I was hooked and entranced and I would heartily recommend it. As it says in the introduction when Mark's diaries are found, Quakers feel 'the need to speak the truth plainly' so you know that most definitely I mean what I say and it is worth reading! Now I'm passing this copy on to my Mum because I know she will LOVE it (it has one story you can follow - not 8 stories all mixed up in different fonts for a start...). No doubt she will buy copies as Xmas presents for family and friends too (and Friends..she still goes to Meeting) so that just shows how one borrowed book can lead to sales for the author. So thanks, Colin, for a top tip and now you can get back to writing that script for our presentation training video...

14 comments:

Sorlil said...

I'm not into historical novels either but sounds like my husband would love this!

Rachel Fox said...

I wouldn't say I'm not into historical novels...I just haven't read many. Recommendations for any other good historical novels welcome, by the way.
x

Sorlil said...

I did read most of Bernard Cornwall's 'Sharpe' series which was pretty good!

Colin Will said...

Oh I'm so glad you liked it Rachel. Margaret and I were on a writers' retreat in Assynt in 2007. I was very impressed with her attitude to research - she actually learned long-distance canoeing before she wrote those scenes in Voyageur (and before she had her 2nd hip replacement). And while she was in Assynt she spoke to local crofters about the design of eel traps, as she was writing about them in the novel she was then working on.

Rachel Fox said...

Yes and more importantly she turns the details of the research into an exciting, thought-provoking novel. Quite a feat.

hope said...

I love those kind of books when well done. James Mitchner was wonderful at those, some of which were made into T.V. mini series in the States, like "Shogun", [starring Richard Chamberlain at his best].

I got hooked as well on a series by John Jakes...think it was 7 novels in all! His was multi-generational but each book was the next generation from the Civil War on.

Thanks..one to add to my list.

Rachel Fox said...

I think you will love this one, Hope.
x

BarbaraS said...

I do have the odd penchant for a well written historical novel, so I'm putting this on the list of books to look out for in the library. Great review Rachel!

Rachel Fox said...

Thanks Barbara. I think you will enjoy it.
x

Dick said...

I'm passing through a historical novel phase (with the new Le Carré in between) and I went to a school run ny Quakers, so I'll chase this one up.

Although an atheist, I've always had a lot of time for Quakers. The notion of 'speaking truth to power' as part of the spiritual package appeals strongly.

Rachel Fox said...

Which school Dick? There is only a handful of Quaker schools. I went to one on the North Yorks/Cleveland border for 5 years. It's closed now! Did I contribute to its downfall...probably.

I wrote quite a lot about being a Quaker atheist back in the August post!

x

Dave King said...

I don't get much from historical novels concerned with the politics of their day, but I do enjoy novels which portray past social conditions and the way the landscape and/or language has changed, for example.

Rachel Fox said...

Well, this one is very interesting on social conditions and the linguistic side is interesting too. Worth a go, Dave.

Dick said...

My school wasn't a Quaker school as such - more a progressive school somewhat to the right of Summerhill. But the Head and his wife - Kenneth and Frances Barnes - were Friends, as were several teachers. And the ethos was Quaker in most respects. The school was called Wennington School and it was a couple of miles from Wetherby, in West Yorkshire. It closed in 1975, but it still has an active old scholars association, which must say something about its hold on us all! I'm going to repeat a post about it soon.