New Brunswick History in Fiction

Contents

  1. Background and Context
  2. What to Expect in the Literature
  3. Featured Work
  4. Further Reading
  5. How to Cite

Background and Context

By its centennial year of 1967, Canada’s national identity had undergone a number of significant changes. With the Quiet Revolution, Quebec underwent intense socio-political and socio-cultural change towards a more secular welfare state, and it began to demand more from Confederation. Those demands escalated into the October Crisis of 1970. Following Quebec’s lead, English Canada also underwent a quiet revolution of its own, slowly discarding ties with the British Empire and adopting an identity built on continentalism and urban multiculturalism. The forgotten founding nations of Canada asserted themselves more strongly as well, entering a new era of political organizing, which culminated at the end of the decade with strong opposition to the federal government’s proposed abolishment of the Indian Act, known as the White Paper of 1969. The year 1967, then, was a watershed for Canadian identity. During Expo ’67, hosted on man-made islands in the St. Lawrence River in the middle of Montreal, Canada, with its two-year-old maple leaf flag flying, showed itself to the world. No longer a colony, it was testing itself as a nation, preparing for the moment in 1982 when it would finally patriate its constitution as a sovereign country.

Art and literature in Canada flourished during this period of social change and national identity building. As well-known Canadian author Margret Atwood noted, writers at the time were “taken up by the momentous discovery that we ourselves existed, in what was then the here and now, and we were busily exploring the implications of that” (15). By the 1970s, this festive preoccupation with the “here and now” became a more serious preoccupation with how Canada had arrived at the “here and now.” From that point forward, as critic Herb Wyile notes, “writing about history has been a tremendously important part of Canadian literature’s proliferation and growing popularity” (xi). This is not to say that historical fiction, as a literary genre, is a new phenomenon in Canadian literature. Indeed, as Andrea Cabajsky and Brett Josef Grubisic point out, “from its roots in the early nineteenth century to the present, the Canadian historical novel has been the subject of sustained debate about the role that history and fiction have played in the formation of national identity” (vii). By the 1970s, however, after significant waves of social change and the dismantling of an imperial identity, the role of the historical novel – and that form’s examination of spatial and temporal contexts – had become much more central to Canadian literature. As a result, the role of historical fiction itself changed.

Early Canadian historical fiction represented the past with a meticulous detail that blended localism with romance. In as much as authors could reproduce it, period authenticity was key. In Les Anciens Canadiens (1863), for example, Philippe Aubert de Gaspé crafted a work that presented the manners, customs, and lives of the French settlers who lived through the conquest of New France (the Seven Years’ War). Knowing people who witnessed the event, de Gaspé drew on anecdotes and elements from his own life to create what he determined to be an authentic depiction of the “old Canadians.” In Wacousta (1832) and The Canadian Brothers (1840), War of 1812-veteran Major John Richardson fictionalized elements of history similarly, depicting figures such as Tecumseh and British General Isaac Brock, both of whom he had met during his service. He also depicted First Nations members in a complex and sympathetic light, applying the tag “savage” more often to settlers than first peoples. William Kirby’s historical novel The Golden Dog (1873) likewise drew on legends, oral traditions, and the history of the Quebecois – much of that found in James Le Moine’s Maple Leaves (1863–1906) – to recreate New France circa 1748 in vivid detail. In A Sister to Evangeline (1900) and The Young Acadian (1907), New Brunswick’s Charles G.D. Roberts also produced historical fiction, his work revealing a fascination with the exiled Acadians of the mid-1700s. Finally, Thomas H. Raddall, author of the award-winning history of Halifax, Halifax: Warden of the North (1948), built a literary career examining Maritime histories. Each of these pioneering novelists treated history as a subject matter, rich and provocative on its own.

Contemporary historical fiction written after 1970 is much less concerned with authenticity, the notions of “authenticity” and “objectivity” having been discredited by critical theory. Taking their cue from the post-structuralists, contemporary historical novelists are more concerned with viewing the present through the past, and vice versa. Ideas and structures such as nationalism, identity, modernity, colonialism, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, race, and power have become the central considerations of Canadian historical fiction, displacing the former fascination with the material processes of homesteading, clearing land, trading, and protecting territory. Wyile terms this new form of historical fiction “speculative” because it is speculative and uncertain about origins, impacts, and outcomes. Whereas earlier writers of historical fiction aimed at being clinical, detached, and empirically accurate in portraying time and place, today’s writers have mostly abandoned the documentary impulse. Rather, like science fiction writers who put societal values, norms, beliefs, and material reality under scrutiny in the future, speculative historical fiction does the same, but in the opposite direction (Wyile xii).

This integral and complex relation of present with past is what makes contemporary historical fiction so important in Canadian literature, and no less so in New Brunswick. As one of the most historically rich areas of the country, New Brunswick and the Maritime provinces offer a fertile ground for historical fiction, a fiction that opens understanding of the region’s identity and place in history. As Prairie novelist Robert Kroetsch has stated, “we haven’t got an identity until somebody tells our story. The fiction makes us real” (63). Moreover, in making identity real, “What matters,” Georg Lukács argues, “is not the re-telling of great historical events, but the poetic awakening of the people who figured in those events” (42). Those people, or the events in which they figured, may be entirely fictional, but that does not make them any less important to our understanding of time and place. Timothy Findley’s 1977 novel The Wars, a harrowing and disturbing work that Guy Vanderhaeghe claims is “both a marvellous work of art and a passionate indictment of the first cruel idiocy of the twentieth century” (xi), is a prime example of the power that “speculative” fiction has in recasting historical events.

Textbooks can (and do) provide the motives of warring belligerents, the millions of people killed, the tactical overviews and battle sites, and the photos of war, but those books cannot capture the brutality and madness (or recreate the contradictions) of the First World War in the same way that literature can. The Wars achieves powerful immediacy in the opening prologue when a battle-worn Robert Ross, pistol in hand and deep in mud with bodies all around him, looks at a burning train of horses, weeping silently in despair. Art best renders the terribleness of that moment – and art, in Findley’s case literary art, best captures the wrenching contradiction of wartime heroism and battlefield experience. The first (heroism) is the subject of headlines and ticker-tape parades while the second (horror) is the subject of a lifetime’s private suffering. Artistic rendering thus most effectively “troubles” events that are too-often treated superficially, statistically, or quantitatively. Contemporary, speculative art questions rather than reports. The difference is key for full and unvarnished understanding of not only the past but also the present.

One of the curiosities of contemporary, English-language New Brunswick literature, however, is the dearth of historical fiction, a dearth that warrants examination, especially in light of the waves of historical fiction coming out of Newfoundland and the West. What has accounted for the province’s lack of English-language historical fiction? What are the political implications of that lack? And what does that lack tell us about ourselves as a provincial society?

One of the exceptions to that lack, and the best example of contemporary historical fiction in New Brunswick, is Antonine Maillet’s novel Pélagie-la-Charette (1979). That novel, which Maillet wrote to avenge her people (and in so doing “trouble” history), tells the story of exiled Acadians living in the colonies that would become the United States. The band of exiles, led by the fearless Pélagie, begins a ten-year trek back to the homeland of Acadie, which the British had forcibly taken, expelling thousands of Acadian New Brunswickers during the Great Expulsion of 1755–62. Modelled after Homer’s The Odyssey and the Biblical Book of Exodus – and inspired by Longfellow’s Evangeline (1847), a touchstone work of speculative history – Maillet’s epic of a people is fictional, but in synthesizing the pain and injustice inflicted upon them it reveals as much about present conditions in New Brunswick as it does about the past. The interrogation of official history that the novel undertakes became crucial in shaping the aspirations of Acadians since the 1970s. The novel brought into focus not only the psychological dimensions of forced exile but, more fundamentally, the apparatus of survival (both linguistic and cultural) that Acadians have turned toward productive ends. Newly awakened are tactics of resilience and resistance that are being vigorously discussed among Acadian New Brunswickers. And while there is no consensus on whether Maillet got Acadian history right – her version of history is opposed by some – consensus is not the point. Rather, as Georg Lukács stated, historical writing involves a “poetic awakening” which in itself is a mobilizing force. It puts the present in a historical context. It upsets accepted views. It enables people to “talk back” to power. It sometimes-radically reinterprets the past. And it is as comfortable with speculation as truth, knowing that speculation is both as legitimate and as powerful a mobilizing force. Could the lack of this form of literary speculation in English New Brunswick account for some of our passivity in the face of powerful federalist and other internally defining forces? The question is worth asking, especially in light of the vast differences between English and French New Brunswick in terms of political activism, cultural vibrancy, and community self-definition.

The cultural power of speculative historical fiction thus become clear. Works of imagined history challenge “official” narratives and provide multiple perspectives – not just the victor’s – on historical events and social operations that are reproduced in the present. The speculative nature of contemporary historical fiction also serves to illustrate that the past is very much a fictional concept, given to motive and perspective, bias and persuasion. It is in that light that Sally Armstrong’s The Nine Lives of Charlotte Taylor (2007) was penned. We read the novel of our history for the reasons that we read all such works of imagined and speculative history: to learn about ourselves, how we were formed, and how the forces of that formation continue to define us.

Works Cited

Atwood, Margaret. In Search of Alice Grace. Charles R. Bronfman Lecture in Canadian Studies 21 November 1996. Ottawa: U of Ottawa P, 1997.

Cabajsky, Andrea, and Brett Josef Grubisic. National Plots: Historical Fiction and Changing Ideas of Canada. Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2010.

Kroetsch, Robert, et al. Creation. Toronto: New Press, 1970.

Lukács, Georg. The Historical Novel. Trans. Hannah Mitchell and Stanley Mitchell. London: U of Nebraska P, 1983.

Vanderhaeghe, Guy. Introduction. The Wars. Timothy Findley. Toronto: Penguin Modern Classics. xi–xviii. 2005.

Wyile, Herb. Speculative Fictions: Contemporary Canadian Novelists and the Writing of History. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s UP, 2002.

What to Expect in the Literature

New Brunswick is rather unique in the country (perhaps “isolated” is a better word) for not possessing a contemporary historical fiction – a fiction, that is, that takes a measure of a region’s history in order to both explore the genesis of attitudes and to “trouble” those attitudes. This is not to suggest that writers of contemporary historical fiction seek to re-write history from the always-enlightened perspective of the present, but rather to say that writers of historical fiction are essential to all cultures for the light they shine on the past. Such writers often are critical of past practices, but they are critical in the service of greater understanding. They work from the premise that to know oneself and one’s culture, we all must look in the rear-view mirror. And they also work from the premise that all history is fiction, a series of stories and interpretations that are written by the powerful and that change over time. If history is fiction, they surmise, then so too is identity, that sense we have of ourselves that is informed by where we come from, where we are, and what stories we choose to tell about ourselves.

In New Brunswick, historical fiction of an earlier type (more searching, less critical) made an appearance in the nineteenth century. Douglas Huyghue’s Argimou: A Legend of the Micmac was released in serial form in 1842, that novel examining both the 1755 expulsion of the Acadians and the collision of European and Indigenous cultures. Moses Henry Perley and later Charles G.D. Roberts undertook work of a similar type, but the spirit of Huyghue’s social conscience was never repeated in New Brunswick with the same moral urgency.

In The Nine Lives of Charlotte Taylor (2007), readers will encounter one of the few examples of contemporary historical fiction in the province. The novel examines New Brunswick’s pre- and post-Loyalist tableaux, shedding light on a history that most New Brunswickers do not know. We can only hope that the novel sparks others to write about the province’s past in the ways that Prairie, Newfoundland, and Quebec writers have routinely done in their own regions.

Featured Work

  1. Sally Armstrong’s The Nine Lives of Charlotte Taylor

Further Reading

Baker, Jennifer S. Readers’ Advisory Guide to Historical Fiction. Chicago, IL: American Library Association, 2014.

Cabajsky, Andrea, and Brett Josef Grubisic. National Plots: Historical Fiction and Changing Ideas of Canada. Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2010.

Duffy, Dennis. Sounding the Iceberg: An Essay on Canadian Historical Novels. Toronto: ECW Press, 1986.

Hulan, Renée. Canadian Historical Writing: Reading the Remains. New York: Palgrave, 2014.

---. “Reading Historiography and Historical Fiction in Twentieth-Century Canada.” The Oxford Handbook of Canadian Literature. Ed. Cynthia Sugars. New York: Oxford UP, 2016. 780-798.

Hutcheon, Linda. A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction. New York: Routledge, 1988.

---. “Historiographic Metafiction.” The Canadian Postmodern: A Study of Contemporary English-Canadian Fiction. Toronto: Oxford UP, 1988. 61-77.

---. “Historiographic Metafiction, Parody, and the Intertextuality of History.” Intertextuality and Contemporary American Fiction. Ed. Patrick O’Donnell and Robert Con Davis. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1989. 3-32.

Johnson, Sarah L. Historical Fiction: A Guide to the Genre. Westport, Conn: Libraries Unlimited, 2005.

Kuester, Martin. Framing Truths: Parodic Structures in Contemporary English-Canadian Historical Novels. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1992.

Sugars, Cynthia, and Eleanor Ty, eds. Canadian Literature and Cultural Memory. Toronto: Oxford UP, 2014.

Thomas, P.L. Science Fiction and Speculative Fiction: Challenging Genres. Boston: Sense Publishers, 2013.

Vautier, Marie. New World Myth: Postmodernism and Postcolonialism in Canadian Fiction. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s UP, 1998.

Wyile, Herb. Speculative Fictions: Contemporary Canadian Novelists and the Writing of History. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s UP, 2002.

How to Cite

Use of material in the New Brunswick Literature Curriculum in English is restricted to scholarly, research, or educational purposes only. Use should include appropriate citations. The following citation is an example of how a researcher should cite the author pages for Sally Armstrong:

Tremblay, Tony, James William Johnson, and Alexandra Cogswell. “Sally Armstrong.” New Brunswick Literature Curriculum in English. Fredericton: UNB Libraries, 2020.

The following citation is an example of how a researcher should cite the module pages for New Brunswick History in Fiction, the module within which Sally Armstrong appears:

Tremblay, Tony, James William Johnson, and Alexandra Cogswell. “New Brunswick History in Fiction: Background and Context.” New Brunswick Literature Curriculum in English. Fredericton: UNB Libraries, 2020.