Novel captures culture clashes

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September 20, 2013

Pilgrimage

By Diana Davidson

Brindle and Glass

280 pages, $19.95

 Reviewed by Candace Fertile

Given the climate, people had huge challenges surviving in the late-nineteenth century in small communities on the Candian prairies. But the struggles with cold, heat, and bugs, to name just a few, are almost minor compared to the problems created by human beings: discrimination based on gender, ethnicity, and class. Diana Davidson does a solid job in her debut novel, Pilgrimage, of recreating both the physical landscape of Lac St. Anne, in the Edmonton, Alberta, area,  and the ideologies that affect its inhabitants’ behaviour from December, 1891 to March, 1893.

Lac St. Anne is a mix of European, Cree, and Métis people, languages, and customs. Power is held by the few Europeans who tend to be dismissive of the aboriginal people while feeling quite free to treat them brutally. Virginié Cardinal points out the variety in her family background:  “ . . . everyone here, except Nohkum [grandmother], is a mix of something: Cree, French, Scottish, Blackfoot, Dene, and Lord knows what else!” Her teenage daughter, Mahkesîs, is one of the three main female characters, and like the other two, Mahkesîs is treated vilely by James Barrett, the Hudson’s Bay store manager.  Barrett also preys on Moira Murphy, a young Irish immigrant in his employ. And his third victim is his own wife Georgina, who is not above abusing those she can.

Mahkesîs, Moira, and Georgina all have secrets having to do with sensuality and desire, and in the case of the two young women, love. In this novel, sexuality is a trap for women, just another thing that hampers their lives even if conception was the result of love. Certainly men are adversely affected, but the focus is on the female characters and their lack of power.

Given the novel’s time and place, readers should not expect a happy ending, and as the novel progresses, the sadness and death mount. Moira loves Gabriel, Mahkesîs’s handsome brother, and he loves her, but will that be enough to save her from the clutches of the Barretts? Mahkesîs seeks solace in a convent and in unconventional love. Georgina devises cruel plans while revealing that her own life was severely damaged when her parents married her off to a man older than her father.

The moments of happiness are meagre for all the characters, and Davidson does not shy away from showing the negative effects of enforced religion and language  — or the huge problems of created by alcohol addiction. When cultures come together, the meeting can be mutually beneficial. It can also be a collision in which the powerful abuse their position, leading to suffering and loss. While Davidson occasionally lapses into the stereotypical, the lessons of this novel are valuable ones.

 

Candace Fertile lived for many years in Edmonton and now teaches English at Camosun College

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