Today on Project Gutenberg #47

Apologies for the delay. Between my job and prepping to write a new novella, I’ve been rather busy this month. But you’re going to see a little more of me before April rolls around! So today on Project Gutenberg, we have…

Northern Lights by Gilbert Parker

Today we’re headed up to the land of mounties and maple syrup. That’s right, this is a Canada story. Well, stories. Sir Gilbert Parker was a British-Canadian novelist active during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and he gained a pretty decent following for himself. His books focused on the region of Quebec and the lives and customs of the people who lived there. Parker started to move away from his literary career at the turn of the century, as he became more involved in politics. And he was good at that, too: he served in Parliament for nearly 20 years and was made a baronet in 1915. His fame and talent as an author came in handy during this part of his life when the British government had him writing propaganda that might convince the United States to join World War One.

Northern Lights, published in 1909, comes before most of that. Parker describes this short story collection as a response to the growing modernity he encountered during a visit to the Canadian frontier in 1905. He says that “I determined to write a series of stories which would catch the fleeting characteristics and hold something of the old life, so adventurous, vigorous, and individual, before it passed entirely and was forgotten.” What follows are a series of melodramatic vignettes depicting life in the Canadian West, pre-railway, with all the assorted drama and perils you can imagine.

It’s true that these stories have not aged especially well. They’re rather maudlin, concerning themselves mainly with romance. But I think you could still read these today, and it would be a fascinating experience. Parker’s prose does have a tendency to meander, but he has a decent mastery of description and dialogue. And in terms of Parker’s attitudes towards his subjects, there are times when he actually managed to impress me.

There are several Native characters throughout the stories, and Parker portrays them in a surprisingly nuanced and sympathetic way. They grapple with the approach of white civilization and how it’s affected not only their tribes but them personally. They have sorrows and regrets and wistful memories. They attempt to help their children navigate a world markedly different from the one they themselves grew up in, with various outcomes and levels of success. Parker recognizes that these people are also part of the story of the Old West, and not just as faceless antagonists. And while that may be an absurdly low bar, this book also clears that bar when many other Western books of the time did not.

Another surprising aspect of these stories is how many well-written female characters Parker has. A lot of the stories in Northern Lights are about women, and these women are all complex, flawed and unique. There’s Mitiahwe, a Native woman with a white husband who takes matters into her own hands to keep him from leaving her. There’s Nance, a tough smuggler girl. There’s Loisette Alroyd, who has to make a decision about forgiveness when she learns that the man who broke her sister’s heart is being hanged for a murder he didn’t commit. There’s Pauline Renton, a mixed-race girl who struggles to be accepted by white society but still knows her worth as a person and isn’t afraid to say it.

“You want to pay a debt you think you owe,” she said, in a strange, lustreless voice, turning to him at last. “Well, you have paid it. You have given me a book to read which I will keep always. And I give you a receipt in full for your debt.”

“I don’t know about any book,” he answered dazedly. “I want to marry you right away.”

“I am sorry, but it is not necessary,” she replied suggestively. Her face was very pale now.

“But I want to. It ain’t a debt. That was only a way of putting it. I want to make you my wife. I got some position, and I can make the West sit up, and look at you and be glad.”

Suddenly her anger flared out, low and vivid and fierce, but her words were slow and measured. “There is no reason why I should marry you—not one. You offer me marriage as a prince might give a penny to a beggar. If my mother were not an Indian woman, you would not have taken it all as a matter of course. But my father was a white man, and I am a white man’s daughter, and I would rather marry an Indian, who would think me the best thing there was in the light of the sun, than marry you. Had I been pure white you would not have been so sure, you would have asked, not offered. I am not obliged to you. You ought to go to no woman as you came to me. See, the storm has stopped. You will be quite safe going back now. The snow will be deep, perhaps, but it is not far.”

The stories here are a little too dense for casual reading, and some of the more dated elements might turn readers off. But I think it would be worth your time to look at a few of them. They’re smart, poignant and well-crafted. Gilbert Parker was knighted in 1902 for his contributions to Canadian literature, and if the rest of his work is like this, it’s not difficult to see why.

And that’s what we found today on Project Gutenberg! See you next time!

— Dana

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