I have major difficulties remembering names. When I used to teach, I had a plan of the classroom, who sat where, and their names. And I needed that plan. When addressing pupils, Short Accountant Person, or Dark Haired Woman Who Looks Petrified doesn’t really cut it. So it’s to Troon Harrison’s credit that she has a heroine in Amelia Otterchild Mackenzie whose name has stuck with me since I read it.
Amelia Otterchild Mackenzie is the heroine of this book, set in Hudson Bay during the 1930s. Amelia and her sister Charlotte Bright Eyes are on their own. They are half Swampy Cree – half white. Their Cree mother married a man who went off up river, promised to send for them and never did. After waiting years, Amelia’s mother married another white man, but he went back to his country, Scotland. And now their mother is dead and Amelia and Charlotte need to decide what to do.
When the book opens, Amelia thinks she’s going to die. Her canoe is being swept out to sea and she cannot stop it. But then she is rescued by her pawakan, her spirit guide – a creature she’s never seen before, which comes out of the fog, swimming to shore. Amelia grabs the creature by its long red hair and is towed to safety. It’s a wonderfully atmospheric piece of writing, the canoe being borne inexorably out to sea, and the strange creature appearing out of the fog.
The creature of course turns out to be a horse. Amelia, Charlotte, Foxfire the horse, Olivia its owner (and a large crew) journey upriver, so Olivia can be reunited with her husband, and Amelia and Charlotte can look for their father. It’s a grim journey, and the author does a fine job of putting over just what a desperate struggle it was to move to undertake such a journey in this country. It’s a gripping story, well told.
A good historical story has to impart a serious amount of information: the reader needs to understand the context in which the characters are operating, and what governs their behaviour. This the author does well, and to her credit, not blindly. I liked the nuanced view Troon Harrison takes of Cree beliefs: she’s obviously firmly on the side of these people who live with what the land gives them, and understand the souls of animals, but not blindly so. They are not perfect: Amelia regards a fellow traveller up the river who has epilepsy as a danger, who is turning Witiko, a creature with a heart of ice that will devour them. Amelia’s world view is often a help, but here it is a major hindrance. Had she only had the same view of epilepsy as Olivia, she would have found vital clues to the whereabouts of her father much, much sooner.
I was completely absorbed in the world of this novel. The author made me see the world through Amelia’s eyes and understand her way of looking at it. The horse is splendid: a Norfolk Trotter, who is always recognisably a horse. Amelia’s instinctive sympathy with the horse is beautifully done.
This is a story about a girl learning to cope with life; using what she’s learned from her Cree upbringing and what she learns from those she encounters on her travels – a many and varied, and always interesting lot. There’s so much of Amelia some of the other characters don’t get quite enough space: sister Charlotte Bright Eyes is a somewhat vague presence considering the importance Amelia places on her, but Amelia Otterchild takes you through the story quite well enough.
Troon Harrison – Red River Stallion
Bloomsbury, 2013, £5.99; available as an ebook too.