By Fred Stenson
The Trade is a book that could have gone wrong very easily. Nowhere have the forces of political correctness had a worse influence on our literature than with regard to the historical novel. The fault lies not so much with the impulse toward revision as the need to preach. Much of our recent historical fiction has been reductively moralistic, apologizing for past guilt while exposing obvious historical wrongs. While it may be well intentioned, it remains far less interesting and revealing than its authors seem to imagine.
Fred Stenson’s excellent new novel, despite being concerned with a brutally exploitive chapter in Canadian history, manages to avoid this. In his Acknowledgments he does mention having the “courage to write a novel that . . . argues with some of history’s assessments” and re-interpreting some of the “revered figures in the formal history,” but today such remarks are almost perfunctory. (Who would bother to write a historical novel that doesn’t argue with some of history’s assessments? But this is only by the way.)
Morality isn’t such a clear issue in The Trade, mainly because the importance of human action shrinks against Stenson’s vision of the West. The characters seem almost marginal to a story whose real hero is the land itself. Time and again the country is described as being like a giant body – the land its skin, the prairies a grassy pelt, the stones its bones and the rivers its blood. The language used to evoke this landscape is consistently impressive, creating a West that is both spectacular and domestic in its colouring:
Two camps at this pace brought them to another change, a place where the sun burned hot and intense, and the grass thinned until the earth’s ribs stood out. The valley here was an ashen cage with smaller hills inside it, smooth hills the colour and shape of wasp nests inverted. Still farther, the beehive hills were striped sideways, purple between the grey, and some bled orange as if packed with rusting iron.
Stenson’s emphasis on the environment has several important consequences. In the first place, character is of less significance. No single figure dominates the narrative. The trader Edward Harriot seems to be the novel’s center, but he often appears as a passive, even pathetic man. The powerful One Pound One is made small by bureaucracy and age, and finally swept away by historical currents. Even the Governor, though a wonderful villain, represents an enigmatic and lazy evil, relegated to punishing what he can’t control. Meanwhile, something about the environment – its size, power – remains indifferent to these brief lives of the bold and the bad. One thinks of the novels of Willa Cather (another great Western author), with their episodic structures loosely arranged around the lives of a handful of related characters shaped by the soil and weathered by time.
Naturalism, and this is its great strength, is very hard to get sentimental about or politicize. Stenson’s West is a Darwinist arena beyond good and evil where politics are subordinate to the theology of power.
Humanity is diminished if not degraded in this kind of world. Human beings are just another form of animal life on the prairies, a point made clear by the use of words like “mating” and “coupling” to describe sex (the children, in turn, are “whelped”). In the struggle for survival weakness is the only wrong, and power the only good. The Indians are not the only victims, nor are they always on the losing side.
In a strategy that has been familiar to the historical novel since Waverley, Stenson casts Harriot as the idealistic, romantic youth who has to be educated in the ways of this real historical world. As I mentioned earlier, it is not a political education so much as a theological one. “The trade is the god that made us,” Harriot writes in a letter. It is a point the novel returns to with increasing frequency in the final chapters. One Pound One explains to a missionary that the Company is his god, sending him about its business just as God employs missionaries. In Harriot’s questioning of the missionary we see the same concerns being expressed:
“Do you think the service of God and the service of the Company can ever be one?” Harriot asked.
“You have proven that yourself, sir. By allowing me to use the opportunities created by the trade to do God’s work.”
“No,” Harriot said. “I do the Company’s work and then you do God’s. What I’m wondering is if there’s ever a moment when the two are the same.”
Rundle sighed out his impatience.
“Riddles. I have never been able to set my mind to them. Your two things sound like one to me.”
That seems to me to be an odd thing for a missionary to say, but it is entirely fitting for this novel. Yet the missionary’s conclusion is one that Harriot himself dearly wants to avoid. As an old man, he wants new employees of the Company to understand “that the company was only their employer, not their god or fate. That with decent luck they would be free men someday.”
We may be free . . . with decent luck . . . someday. It seems a sad lesson of history.
Review first published online April 11, 2001.