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A Discovery of Strangers

A Discovery of Strangers by Rudy Wiebe
English | Sept. 2001 | ISBN: 0394280830 | 336 Pages | EPUB | 2 MB

A Discovery of Strangers tells of the meeting of two civilizations - the first encounter of the nomadic Dene people with Europeans - in an imaginative reconstruction of John Franklin's first map-making expedition in 1819-21 in what is now the Northwest Territories. At the heart of the novel is a love story between twenty-two-year-old midshipman Robert Hood, the Franklin expedition's artist, and a fifteen-year-old Yellowknife girl known to the British as Greenstockings.
A national bestseller, published also in Germany and China, Wiebe's first novel in eleven years and his twelfth work of fiction won him his second Governor General's Award for Fiction at the age of sixty, over strong competition from Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro.

It is a story of love, murder, greed and passion in an unforgiving Arctic landscape. French-Canadian voyageurs paddle the small British expedition into the land of the Yellowknives to search for the fabled Northwest Passage. While this trip would not prove as disastrous as Franklin's third expedition, nevertheless more than half his men did not survive the harsh conditions. The long winter stopover allows for interchange between the cultures. When the son of a Lancashire clergyman and the daughter of a native elder fall in love, they devise a language of their own to cross their wordless divide. Hood will not survive to see the birth of his daughter, perishing in 1821 in an attempt to reach Greenstockings's band 450 kilometres south. Nor will the Yellowknives survive much longer: within twenty years, they will be all but wiped out by a smallpox epidemic brought by the white men.

The novel is the work of a poetic mind, written in several voices: of the British explorers, of the Tetsot'ine people - named Yellowknife by the strangers - and, most unexpected of all, of the animals that live on the Barrenlands. Wiebe climbs inside the characters, bringing them and the North to life. "Most Canadians have never seen that landscape. Yet I see it as being at the centre of our national psyche. That's the roots of our world, right there." He began work on the novel in earnest following a canoe trip between the Coppermine River and the site of Fort Enterprize in 1988, when he was first enraptured by the landscape. The novel contains vivid images, such as stunning descriptions of caribou bursting through snow. In calling the Arctic ‘A Land Beyond Words,' Wiebe admits how difficult it was to do it justice. "I think there's always a total contradiction in even trying to do such a novel," he said in an interview, "and yet it's the very contradiction out of which any kind of artistic struggle must come. It's not even worth trying if it doesn't seem impossible."

In researching historical sources, Wiebe found letters, earlier accounts of the region such as those of Samuel Hearne, as well as oral stories and mythology told by the Dene elders. "I take the facts, as many of the facts as history gives me, and I use them to tell the story that I believe these facts tell us beyond themselves . . . . How did it happen, why did it happen, what was going on inside people's heads while it was happening, why did they do what they did?" Franklin's book on the first expedition contained a small paragraph mentioning Greenstockings as the most beautiful girl of the Dene, and a sketch of her and her father Keskarrah drawn by Robert Hood. Wiebe also discovered a claim made years later by one of the members of the team that Greenstockings had had a child by Hood (these facts are related in his book Playing Dead: A Contemplation Concerning the Arctic). From these details, he created a powerful story of their union. "It's imagination all right, but it has to be an informed imagination."

The Kingston Whig-Standard claimed the book "is to the North what Big Bear was to the West - an imaginative, and possibly definitive, evocation of a crucial time, place and situation." It is part of a body of significant historical fiction by Wiebe, including The Scorched-Wood People, which tells the story of Louis Riel, Gabriel Dumont and the Northwest Rebellion of 1885. The third Franklin expedition has been the subject of works by Margaret Atwood and Mordecai Richler, as well as accounts such as Frozen in Time by John Geiger and forensic anthropologist Owen Beattie. explores the expedition Wiebe found more fascinating: that of first contact between the Europeans and the Natives, which was so damaging to the Native people in the end, and so essential to the survival of the Europeans. In his acceptance speech for the Governor General's Award, Wiebe said: "We know too little about our selves. In this enormous, beautiful land we inhabit, we seem to have no eyes to see, no ears to hear, the stories that are everywhere about us and clamouring to be told . . . . Only the stories we tell each other can create us as a true Canadian people."

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