Certain historical events—particularly those where someone sins and someone is sinned against—draw novelists as magnets draw iron filings. In Canada, the misnamed Riel Rebellion of 1885, the final phase of Canada’s war against a united Métis people, is such an event. It has already produced one towering work of literature, Rudy Wiebe’s The Scorched Wood People, which tells the story from the Métis point of view. A new novel by David D. Orr is equally sympathetic to the Métis, but relates events as experienced by the ragtag army Canada sent west to subdue them.
The novel features three main characters. The narrator, Lieutenant Willie Lorimer, is slight, bespectacled and a student of poetry. Willie is an accidental soldier, forced to take up arms because he forgot to resign his commission in a short-lived university military group. His military training consisted of a single lesson—how to salute. Arthur Howard is an American salesman, along on the expedition as a guardian for his product, the new and fearsomely effective Gatling gun. A veteran of US frontier skirmishes, Howard is often the only person around who knows what’s going on. Most interesting psychologically is the idealistic and charismatic Captain Roley Collison, a clothing merchant who has a spectacular gift for inspiring his men. Willie remembers how he felt on meeting Collison: “Very soon, I would be ready to follow this storekeeper in a captain’s uniform anywhere he chose to lead me, anywhere at all.”
The reader can see the consequences coming. The force meets its first combat at a skillfully planned ambush at Fish Creek, and then faces the main battle at Batoche, led by a frightened and less than competent commander. The Métis are better fighters than the army, and have an incomparably better general, Gabriel Dumont. What they don’t have are cannons and Gatling guns. After the surrender, Willie and Roley talk with the captive Louis Riel, who says his people, robbed of their lands by government chicanery, are now defeated and trampled. “They don’t get to be themselves again,” he says movingly.
Encountering Riel deals with a time that tried men’s souls, on both sides of the conflict. The author has some problems early on (creating believable female characters, getting speech patterns right) but his strengths in other areas soon win the reader over. His skill in rendering battle scenes, for instance, is superb. One could almost imagine him present at Batoche in 1885, notebook in hand, taking the whole thing down. Encountering Riel is an absorbing and enlarging book. It is highly recommended.
—Merna Summers is a writer in Edmonton.