Contact Zones

  • Pauline Holdstock
    Into the Heart of the Country. HarperCollins
  • Julie Wheelwright
    Esther: The Remarkable True Story of Esther Wheelwright—Puritan Child, Native Daughter, Mother Superior. Harper Perennial

Written over years of painful fact-gathering and transatlantic visits from her native England to several North American locations, Esther is the engaging result of Julie Wheelwright’s efforts to give a full account of the multiple lives of her eighteenth-century ancestor, first as a Puritan seven-year-old child abducted during a French and First Nations raid on her village in Maine, later as adopted daughter to a Catholic Abenaki family, and eventually as a nun in Quebec City. While Esther’s experiences are more than enough on their own to keep the reader interested, we are drawn in from the very first pages as the prologue takes us on a taxi ride in a frenzied search for Esther’s grave in Belmont Cemetery, interspersed with the author’s rising fear that she is going to miss her plane back home. Thus, the book has the added appeal of those works in which biography may occasionally blur into memoir, as the author weaves into the fabric of Esther’s tale her own fragmented story of travel and fact-finding, her pangs of guilt at leaving her two young daughters in England as she hunts for information, her reactions to people and places where Esther may have left a trace, and even her bewilderment over some of the material collected. The author explains that she subscribes to Alison Weir’s notion of “ocular history,” that is, retracing a subject’s footsteps in order to find some vestige of his/her essence. In her case, however, the personal investment is the more intense because of the family connection between biographer and subject. Julie Wheelwright puzzles over the central role that Esther’s story has played in her own family, determined to challenge a general understanding that it is just another rags-to-riches tale of “a lost child who made good in French Canada.”

However, neither does she downplay the fact that Esther was rather unique insofar as most women’s lives of the period were left unrecorded in their short, domestic journey from childhood into adolescence followed by marriage and maternity. Instead, Esther generated a stream of documents, first and foremost those in which her New England Puritan parents attempted to negotiate a successful return of the captive child. Her experiences at this time appear to be roughly similar to those related in other captivity tales, such as those gathered by Cotton Mather in A Memorial of the Present Deplorable State of New England in 1707. Yet, the author ponders the psychological impact that living among those she had been brought up to believe her mortal enemies must have had on Esther, as well as the strong appeal that Abenaki culture and lifestyle must have held for her. Julie Wheelwright never loses sight of the big picture, either, providing readers with a more general overview of Esther’s situation as part of the spoils of war, and emphasizing how both English and French took captives to ensure “the survival of their own captive people [and to enable them] to organize exchanges.”

Nevertheless, Esther’s fate proved to be exceptional once more when, despite protracted negotiations for her return home, she took the decision to enter the Ursuline order, within which she would rise from novice to Mother Superior. Before the British conquest of New France, the author argues, Esther’s role changed from a spoil of war to an asset for the commercial interests of the Wheelwright family, due both to the prominent role that the Catholic Church held in French society and to the economic exchanges between New France and New England in times of peace. A final transformation took place when the British took over New France in the 1760s, and the Ursulines became the uncomfortable object of suspicion and rejection, teetering on the brink of expulsion. They seem to have triggered wonder too, and even more so in the English-born visitors, judging from the fact that they make an appearance in British author Frances Brooke’s The History of Emily Montague (1769). One century later, William Kirby would get in touch with the Wheelwrights to find out more about Esther while doing research into this period for his novel The Golden Dog (1877).

Above all, Julie Wheelwright’s biography stresses her ancestor’s survival skills and her insight into three different cultures and languages, which allowed her to keep playing a major role as an ambassador and go-between, bridging differences and misunderstandings throughout the radical historical changes taking place in eighteenth-century North America. Her book is thus
of great interest not just because of the “remarkable true tale” of Esther, but also because it charts the changing landscapes and mindscapes of the contact zone, as described by Mary Louise Pratt in her 1992 study Imperial Eyes, i.e., “not in terms of separateness or apartheid, but in terms of copresence, interaction, interlocking understandings and practices.

Pauline Holdstock’s historical novel Into the Heart of the Country pursues similar goals in its complex portrayal of identity in flux. Here, the contact zone shifts west to the trading posts established by the Hudson’s Bay Company on the Churchill and Nelson rivers in the eighteenth century. Between 1717 and 1783, three men governed the Prince of Wales Fort: Richard Norton, his mixed-race son Moses, and Samuel Hearne. While the three male colonizers anchor the account of the fort’s history between its foundation and its reconstruction following a French attack, their accounts are framed by the voice of Molly Norton, the mixed-race daughter of Moses Norton and Hearne’s common law wife. It is her disembodied consciousness that holds together the narrative, creating links between past and future, and addressing us from within the heart of the land for which she stands. By means of the implicit dialogue between colonizer and colonized, Englishman and First Nations, Holdstock gives readers a powerful insight into how her subjects are, in Pratt’s terms, “constituted in and by their relations to each other.”

Her portrayal of this historical contact zone stresses the mutual dependence of their inhabitants. Englishmen in particular are shown to rely heavily on the skills of the Southern and Northern Nations (Cree and Dene) to live off the land. On his arrival in this hostile country, Richard Norton must put all his trust on his guides; his complete lack of useful skills means that they regard him as a child. The same unequal power dynamics are impressed on Samuel Hearne when he decides to explore the land to the northwest in search of minerals and has to admit failure twice. It is only by humbly admitting that he has much to learn from the Aboriginals and by painfully and slowly acquiring from them some of the most basic skills that Hearne can finally claim success in his third expedition. Holdstock builds a strong contrast between the claustrophobic garrison where the Englishmen spend most of their time, hardly ever venturing outside and never far from the fort, and the freedom of movement of the First Nations people. Embodying this astounding freedom is the character of Matonabbe, particularly as seen from the admiring perspective of Samuel Hearne, whose life he saved, and the jealousy of Moses Norton, who, though born and raised as a child at the fort, was sent to England to obtain a gentleman’s education, and as a result now feels out of place. Holdstock has painted an intriguing portrait of Moses Norton too, stressing his eagerness to make up for his sense of deprivation caused by the early separation from his nurturing mother and aunts. The First Nations female world Moses yearns for is also depicted as both enticing and strangely exciting for the male outsiders, not the less because it offers them some escape from their crippling isolation. Native women endure the most hardship and do the most work: they walk behind the hunters carrying heavy loads, they make the winter coats essential for survival, and perform a thousand other tasks. By means of Molly’s haunting voice, Holdstock shows them as not simply coping, but also as managing to forge deep solidarities and leading intense, fulfilling lives in strong connection with their communities and with their land.

Yet, the novel avoids idealizing Native lifestyles. Balancing their superior skills is their growing dependence on the fort, as they start relying more and more on food and tools they trade for their furs, while their vulnerability to European diseases also puts them at a disadvantage. The destruction of the fort by French ships in combination with a smallpox epidemic entails the destruction of this contact zone, too. The tragic ending of the powerful leader Matonabbe and his band resonates in the final pages of a novel that stands out as a complex tale of interwoven destinies.

This review “Contact Zones” originally appeared in Indigenous Focus. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 215 (Winter 2012): 200-202.

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