Like many people who work in history, I sometimes have a problem with reading historical fiction. This happens most often when I am reading something on a topic I am familiar with. Bill Gaston's new novel The Order of Good Cheer (ISBN 978-0-88784-200-9) is an excellent example of this phenomenon. Mostly, my problem lies in the fact that if I am already familiar with the subject, I find myself looking for problems rather than enjoying the narrative. It will often take me about 100 pages to get out of the hyper-critical history mind set and remind myself that I am reading fiction.
Don't get me wrong, The Order of Good Cheer is an interesting character sketch which sweeps through 400 years and a full continent. The book traces both the story of Samuel Champlain and the French settlers at Port Royal in 1606-07 (although Gaston has compressed events into one year) and the fictional Andy Winslow in modern day Prince Rupert, British Columbia. Gaston's task in adding some colour to the story of Port Royal is a difficult one. There are few original written sources on the Habitation, and these provide little information as to the character of the men who were there. As such, Gaston has played a game of filling in the historical blanks. This is where my interpretation (and it is just that, interpretation) differs from Gaston. When I close my eyes and think of the life the men were leading at the Habitation I get a different story based on the same events. Due to the lack of documentary evidence, my version isn't correct, neither is his. I do find it interesting to see how he has taken the known sources and created a world that works on many levels.
The other part of the story takes place in modern day Prince Rupert. For some reason, I find this world more understandable despite my closeness to the Port Royal story. This appears to be an easier story for Gaston to tell simply based on the breadth of modern life he has to draw on. This allows his characters to have a few more sides and warts in their personalities. In a character sketch, these warts are refreshing.
Gaston builds a number of interesting parallels into his twin narratives. To begin with both communities share the initials P.R. (pretty deep analysis I know). Both stories have a significant love interest and, of course, there are various levels of complication based on the attainment or fulfillment of this love. Andy's obsessing about the return of his long lost love interest, Laura Shultz, does grow a bit tiresome at points. I must admit, toward the end of one section I found myself wondering aloud if there had been more ink spilled over the second coming of Laura Shultz or Jesus. In the Port Royal story, the French carpenter Lucien has a relationship not separated by time and physical distance but by two clashing cultures.
There is also an interesting interplay with the Native population in both sections of the story. It is interesting to see how events put in play 400 years ago have manifested themselves in the Prince Rupert narrative. On this same level, there is an undercurrent of impending environmental disaster which has been set in place partially because of changes made with the arrival of Europeans. Of course, both stories wind their way toward an Order of Good Cheer dinner which changes things for all involved.
On the whole, this is a very well written and often compelling book. For those of you interested in a hunt, Gaston has included at least two of the best similes that I have ever read (I will leave you to find these for yourself). If you are at all interested, it is worth picking up a copy of The Order of Good Cheer.
All for now,