Crossing the Bay
- Audrey Callahan Thomas (Author)
Isobel Gunn. Viking Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Elizabeth Hodgson
Isobel Gunn is a fascinating exploration of history, culture, and the psychology of choice and loss. Thomas’s novel is based on a few Hudson’s Bay documents from the nineteenth-century fur trade which make reference to a Scottish apprentice who turned out to be a young woman instead of a young man. Thomas reworks this story of the cross-dressing woman, a persistent cultural narrative, into a deeply moving account of one woman’s, and one man’s, encounters with the limitations of their world, both in the Orkney Islands where they are born and at the Hudson’s Bay fort in the early nineteenth century where they first meet.
The young woman is Isobel Gunn, the impoverished daughter of a drunken father and an insane mother, who, disguised as a boy, flees for the adventure and freedom of the colonies on a Hudson’s Bay ship. Her life in Rupertsland does offer her new opportunities, but she is discovered when the one man who knows her true identity rapes her and leaves her pregnant. She becomes an anomaly, befriended by some, prized for bearing the first white child of the fort, but also feared and despised, especially by the fort’s commander. And the horrors of her life after she gives her son to the commander to be raised as a gentleman, while she is forced to return home to Orkney, are wrenching to read.
Thomas tells much of her story, Isobel’s story, through the voice of another struggling soul: Magnus Inkster, the young minister and schoolteacher at the fort who befriends Isobel Gunn and her young son. For his pains he is sent back to Scotland, and Isobel herself seems unable to accept his gestures of compassion toward her. He lives the rest of his life trying to help her and trying to open his own heart, as he becomes, through his contact with Isobel, increasingly conscious of human suffering.
Thomas explores a variety of issues in Isobel Gunn. The first is the tangled web of people, goods and culture that bind the British Isles to early Canada. At the Rupertsland fort, Magnus and Isobel both discover the complexities of the colonial world in the interdependence of Crée and British, in the poisonous mix of missionary contempt and financial greed, in the lawlessness and elitism, and the poverty and abundance of life in the fur trade. Isobel Gunn in her male disguise loves the challenge and adventure of her new life. Later, sent to live with the Crée women after she is discovered to be female and considered dangerous and expendable by the fort’s commander, Gunn is only the most visible symptom of the wild beauty and freedom, but also the inescapable hypocrisy and cruelty, of early colonial Canada.
Thomas also wants to tell the story of mothers: through Magnus’s soft-hearted mother, Isobel’s own mother, entangled in despair, and Isobel herself. Gunn’s complicated maternal motivations and fears are the most dramatic source of tension in the novel, as she is enmeshed by her limitations while trying to protect her life and that of her son. The epilogue at the end of the novel continues Gunn’s family tree to give us yet another example of maternal loss, this from the twentieth century.
Thomas also wants to make real the historical realities of nineteenth-century Scotland: its poverty and isolation, its Calvinist rigidity and the brutality of smalltown life on the northern edge of the British Isles. She shows us through Magnus’s and Isobel’s experiences, the squalor of Old-Town Edinburgh, the filth of tenant-farmers’ hovels and the prosperous arrogance of the aristocracy. Thomas does all of this in a very compact narrative, with a deft hand and a compassionate eye. Her enjambment of pain and sympathy makes this a wonderfully thoughtful story, rich and expressive.
The novel does have some rough patches. There is the occasional moment when Thomas-the-historian overwhelms Thomas-the-storyteller, as in the extensive glossary at the beginning. The narrative strands introduced in the first thirty pages of the novel are also difficult to disentangle at first. And Isobel herself sometimes seems inexplicable, even to the narrator. Finally, the novel includes some obviously didactic moments, though Thomas keeps these from feeling too pedantic.
The strengths are however considerable: a nuanced sense of history, a feeling for situation, and a capacity to communicate longing and loss. As Isobel Gunn is shipped back to England, leaving her son behind, Thomas writes that "her breasts were caked with dried milk, her face was stiff with tears." This poignant use of physical detail ("why then did she feel, so often, as though she had swallowed a stone?") binds and holds the reader to Isobel Gunn and Isobel Gunn. And, in the long tradition of Canadian narratives about our foremothers’ migrations (Roughing it in the Bush, Away, Alias Grace, to name but a few), Isobel Gunn certainly deserves a place.
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MLA: Hodgson, Elizabeth. Crossing the Bay. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 20 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #175 (Winter 2002), francophone / anglophone. (pg. 181 - 183)
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