A little while ago I wrote about my re-read of The Nymph and the Lamp. I went on and on about how much I loved it and what a great story-teller Thomas Raddall is, but I only had one of his books under my belt; I felt like I needed more evidence to back me up. So, I decided to jump right into my second Raddall book, Hangman’s Beach. It also serves nicely to fill the ‘R’ requirement for my A-Z CanLit Project.
Also, not very long ago I wrote about Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlmann, about Alexander von Humboldt and Carl Friedrich Gauss. I thought it was a fun bookish coincidence that both books are set during the Napoleonic wars. While Humboldt had just gotten back from his trip to Latin America and Gauss was getting used to his new role as Professor of Astronomy, there is high adventure and intrigue going on in the Atlantic Ocean and in the little port of Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Hands down, what I love best about Hangman’s Beach is the detailed history of the Halifax area from the end of the French Revolution, through the Napoleonic wars, leading right up to the War of 1812. Through the characters and their interactions, we learn about the politics of the wars, some of the major players and battles, and how it all had an effect on the people living in Halifax and other parts of Nova Scotia. I soaked this up like a sponge, then relayed it all back to my husband play-by-play. (As a Haligonian, I thought he should know all about it.)
It was a little slow going at times, trying to get a grasp on all the places and people in play. For example, it was helpful to have a map in my head of all the islands mentioned and where they all are; McNab’s Island, Melville Island, Devil’s Island, and Dead Man’s Island (this one’s not really an island). Hangman’s Beach refers to the point of McNab’s Island where the British navy strung up their hung men to warn other British seamen what will happen to them if they decide to desert or commit treason of any kind.
I was surprised to learn that Dartmouth was already being settled so early on, mostly by merchants well-off enough to build a second home across the harbour to avoid the smell and crowds of Halifax in the summer. From Dartmouth, you could take the road out to Preston where there were farms, many of which were being farmed by German settlers. Some of the French prisoners of war were taken to Preston instead of to Melville’s Island to wait out the war, boarding with the local farmers. Another group of occupants there were the Maroons, taking me way back to high school Canadian Studies. The Maroons were exiled to Nova Scotia from Jamaica temporarily before most of them moved on again to Sierra Leone. Are you as utterly transfixed as I am yet?
“The other Frenchmen tell me it is hell turned inside out – a torture of cold instead of heat. An eternity of short days and long black nights, with snow to the hips, and an air cold enough to freeze a brass monkey’s double-shot. Why France ever owned or fought for this country I shall never know. It is not for Frenchmen, this, unless one could arrive in April and depart by November. For the rest of the year the Devil can have it -he’s an Englishman, of course.”
But what about the story? The story begins with Peter McNab, the owner and occupant of MacNab’s Island, a small island in the Halifax Harbour. He has a wife and 2 sons, as well as an Aunt and a ward named Ellen Dewar. Ellen came over from Scotland to live with the McNabs when she was 10. She is now in her early 20s, and Peter and his wife Joanne feel it’s time for Ellen to marry. They start bringing young men over to the island to visit in the hopes that she will take to one of them, but of course she doesn’t. In her independent and practical way she decides she will take Rory as her husband. Rory is a friend of Peter’s and he is also in charge of all the French prisoners on Melville Island; a job he does well and takes pride in. The prisoners are treated well there, many are allowed to go into town and work, while all of them are able to make things to sell at the Market they hold on the island every week.
… it surprised him to learn that almost one in ten of the people living about Halifax harbor was a French prisoner-of-war from the West Indies or taken at sea, and that scores of them moved freely about the town itself.
One day a prisoner with a big secret arrives. Cascamond can speak English very well, and it is arranged that he go to MacNab’s Island as a French tutor for Peter’s 2 boys. You can probably guess what happens next. The main course of the story is somewhat predictable, but I still found the meanderings of it surprising and full of new details about the province and the way life was lived here so long ago. The story takes us all the way down and around the end of the province (where we learn that there are a few scattered Acadian villages on the French shore – a common destination for escaped French prisoners) and back up to Fort Anne (where re-captured prisoners are taken by foot back to Halifax). Then we arrive at Melville Island and spend some time there with the French prisoners. The end of the book brings us right up to the beginning of the War of 1812, and we learn about many of the grumblings and circumstances that spurred it on. Our story about the McNabs and Cascamond has a satisfactory ending, but now I’m itching to read about the next phase of the global battle between the French and English.
The notion of such folk planning a war to take Canada made no sense whatever. What the deuce was Canada? He scraped his memory for things he had heard. A jabber of Frenchmen between Quebec and Montreal; a few stump farmers grumbling in English by the shore of Lake Ontario; west of that nothing but a wilderness haunted by wild Indians and a scatter of frost-bitten ragamuffins in the fur trade! Remote as China, most of it. Not worth a pinch of anybody’s powder.
On a deeper level, Raddall’s characters show a trend of acceptance and moving forward. Maybe because these people are living in the ‘new world’ they are not as likely to get hung up on differences in religion and background. It’s nice to see that Peter (who is Protestant) and Joanne (who is Catholic) have a happy marriage; surprising to some, but others are now used to it, paving the way for future generations. The new love, as well, between Ellen and Cascamond; the British and the French. In the new world, these are the kinds of pairings that will happen when everyone is thrust together in the same place, free from the strict traditions of the ‘old country’.
Character development with Cascamond and Ellen is admittedly predictable; he was obnoxiously full of himself, she was a dreamy mousy sort destined for a ‘safe’ marriage to a much older man. They are transformed by their love, etc., and the power of love will overcome everything, blah blah. But, trust me, it’s worth it.
Now for a little bit of fun: When I read old books, especially old books written by men, I always find it interesting and amusing to note the way women are portrayed or thought of. And, unlike reading about stereotypes or sexism in contemporary literature (like here and here), it doesn’t rankle nearly as much.
“Then what’s to be done?” demanded McNab impatiently. His mind was turned to male affairs, in which everything went on plain lines. Women were like the sea out there, smiling, murmuring, gliding in pleasant undulations on the surface, but moved by deep tides at the pull of mysterious moons. [Peter McNab sounds like a blustery grouch, but is really just a big softie.]
“…This has been entirely a venture of my own. In a way I’m playing a little game for my own ends. It’s part of the pleasure of being a wife. And mother, of course. We women are all schemers, Lieutenant Cascamond, and our best effort is to make men do what we wish without suspecting it for a moment.”
She was of no allurement. And a woman sans attraits did not count as a woman at all, except in that faceless multitude of the old, the decrepit, or deformed. [Oof. These are Cascamond’s thoughts when he first meets Ellen. In his defence, he is basically an orphan brought up by the French government and the navy. But still.]
“Women! Ye never know what notion they’ll take intae their heads in a moment and demand it must be done the next. [Actually, this is what my children are like.] Miss Ellie wouldna come to town at-all at-all the past several years – ye couldna drag her off the island. Nae more would Auntie come away except in summer noo and then. But here ’tis the cauldest part o’ winter, wi’ the Bonnie Jo hauled up till spring and myself content to bide at home, and all on a sudden they’re hotching tae visit the Rosses in toon, and plan tae stay a twelvemonth by the look o’ the baggage.” [This is where Auntie McNab’s cunning plan comes into play.]
So, tell me, is it just me or do you also love to read about the history of places you know? What writers do a good job of it in your neck of the woods? Does reading about the roles of women in history interest you or infuriate you?