Fred Stenson’s 2000 novel The Trade was a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, which I think is pretty neat considering the novel focuses on the fur trade, and as you might well imagine, the fur trade is not usually a sexy or glamorous topic. I say “usually” because Stenson does include some sexy-glam, but not nearly enough to titillate a Giller jury (though maybe I’m projecting here, as the Giller has recognized a fair number of novelists writing historical fiction: Margaret Atwood, Michael Crummey, Guy Vanderhaeghe, Anne Michaels, Wayne Johnston, Jane Urquhart, John Bemrose, Elizabeth Hay, and most recently, Joseph Boyden). So maybe my point is less that historical fiction is unpopular and unrecognized, and more that it is a triumph of the Canadian h.f. novelist. In this case Stenson takes what grade seven history turned into a mind-numbingly-dull exercise in remembering that the NorthWest Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company merged in 1822, and turns it into a fascinating and engaging narrative of deceit, violence, betrayal and madness.
My favourite part? When a cat adopts orphaned bunnies only to watch while the bunnies get eaten. A microcosm for the rest of the narrative that sees (somewhat unconvincingly innocent) good-hearted and sincere men turned violent, or become objects of extreme and disproportionate violence. Stenson ultimately lays the blame for the violence of the fur trade at the hands of “colonialism,” but does so by personifying the ruthless economy of colonialism in the HBCo governor. This sleight, whereby colonialism is not blamed for the devastation of the land, the buffalo and indigenous people, but rather the governor is, remains a problem for me.
That said, Stenson does well to draw attention to the complexity and pervasiveness of colonial violence by including a missionary and an artist-in-the-field-reporter (I should say that the epistolary narratives of the missionary and artist are distracting and awkward inclusions at the end of a narrative that has otherwise been third-person omniscient) as a way of gesturing to the ways colonialism, Christianity and archival “truth” (in the form of paintings and written histories) sustain one another.