1655 Assignment on the Pacific
Keepers of the Garden
by A.S. (Lana) Rodlie
Independently published, 2018
Price on Amazon, $22.93 / 9781730700200
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Reviewed by Vanessa Winn
Viewing the past from the perspective of lesser-known historical figures is a thought-provoking endeavour, which widens the retrospective scope. Ross Cox, a clerk with the doomed Pacific Fur Company, is one such figure. If not for his long-titled book recounting his experiences, The Columbia River: Or scenes and adventures during a residence of six years on the western side of the Rocky Mountains among various tribes of Indians hitherto unknown; together with A Journey across the American Continent, he might have been all but forgotten. Now A.S. (Lana) Rodlie has given him new life in her novel Keepers of the Garden.
With Cox’s youth in Ireland cloaked by the obscurity of time, Rodlie has invented a colourful past for him. His motivation for fleeing Ireland is at first only hinted, under cover of seeking his fortune in the far west. In New York, 18-year-old Cox signs on with John Jacob Astor’s Pacific Fur Company, setting sail with its second supply ship Beaver to the northwest coast in 1811. Most of the fur-trade partners and clerks of this American company were British-Canadian and many of the boatmen were French-Canadian or Métis. The fur-trade expedition is under the leadership of John Clarke, a former Nor’Wester who Rodlie depicts meeting Cox at a New York ball, where they come to blows over an insult.
Cox’s fictitious rocky start with his leader worsens aboard the Beaver, where Clarke is portrayed as a callous drunk. Cox befriends a young French-Canadian hunter, Willets, a real person of the party who suffered from black scurvy. Ignored by Clarke until too late, Willet’s decline sets the dramatic stage for Cox’s growing animosity toward his boss.
Approaching the dreaded Cape Horn, the ship encounters a sudden gale on Christmas Eve, sweeping two sailors overboard. While Cox recalled he and other passengers offering the captain their “feeble assistance,” Rodlie paints a harrowing picture of Cox going up the mast to help furl the freezing sails. The violent storm, lasting five days, ironically abates when they sail around the menacing cape into the Pacific.
Reaching the Columbia River in May, the ship faces another dire challenge, crossing the Columbia Bar. Told ominously through the eyes of the worried Captain Sowles, viewing the jagged rocks and huge breakers through a telescope, he fires the cannons in hopes of alerting the earlier fur-trade arrivals on the Tonquin. Aggravating his fears are reports heard en route in the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) that the preceding ship was destroyed by the Native peoples on the Northwest Coast. The ship’s company at last hear the answering shot, and a small schooner reaches them, introducing Astoria’s senior partner, Duncan McDougall, with a clerk to act as pilot, as well as canoes bearing the legendary Chief Comcomly of the Chinook Nation.
Rodlie remains faithful to the history of Cox, who was inclined in his narrative to elevate his own importance, waiting to go ashore on the schooner’s second trip to transfer men. She leaves to the reader’s imagination the Beaver crossing the bar, which it struck twice, with Cox still onboard. The drama of their arrival at Fort Astoria is supplied by its fur-trade residents reporting that the Tonquin had not returned from its voyage up the coast the previous year and having heard similar rumours of its destruction from the local Indigenous population.
To worsen matters, the Tonquin’s former passengers distrust the impetuous Captain Thorn, who in squalling weather had twice ordered men into boats to find a route over the bar, sending them to their deaths. Rodlie only hints at Thorn previously stranding fur traders and their men on the Falkland Islands, where he was induced at gunpoint by another trader to go back for them. Instead, she heightens the stakes by conveying that the Tonquin went north with most of their supplies.
The situation is learned by Cox and other clerks eavesdropping outside the fort dining hall, where the partners have a shouting match about their predicament among thousands of Indigenous Peoples along the Columbia, with dwindling supplies to trade for food. It becomes difficult here to believe the dialogue of the class-conscious fur traders. Particularly jarring is their repeated use of the word “Injun.” In her afterward, Rodlie indicates she did not use this term “unless it is a direct quote.” Aside from its offensive connotation, her source of this label in dialogue is puzzling. Fur traders commonly used the terms “Indian” or “Native” in their records, which she also uses, in keeping with the period and setting. The derogatory slang “Injun” is, however, more suggestive of Mark Twain or 20th-century cowboy movies.
Also discordant with the partners’ identity as “gentlemen” is their frequent swearing. Perhaps Rodlie meant to make their dialogue informal or to impress the danger of their situation, but the repeated expletives lose both emphasis and the sense of fur-trade discipline integral to its management. In her epilogue she ironically gives the last word to senior clerk Gabriel Franchère, who refutes Washington Irving’s low characterization of the men in his book, Astoria. Franchère described most of his colleagues as “of good parentage [and] liberal education.” Although Rodlie spares Franchère, the traders’ 19th-century style is far removed from their characterization and her use of modern idioms such as “what the fuck” is incongruous with a time when traders could not spell out “d—n” (usually quoting ship captains) in their writing.
For his era, Cox shows unusual open-mindedness, breaking class barriers by shaking hands, albeit hesitantly, with a French-Canadian boatman (voyageur) through the bars of his cell, where he is imprisoned for trying to escape. “Escape to where?” Cox quips. It’s a bleak introduction to Astoria, where many are demoralized and malnourished, softened only by Cox’s admiration of the surrounding forest after a six-month voyage.
Cox’s open social manner falls short at meeting Indigenous women for the first time. Like other new arrivals, Cox wrote disparagingly of Indigenous women. Rodlie exaggerates his disapproval into a visceral gut reaction upon meeting them, that seems heavy-handed and unnecessary. Perhaps trying for balance, she switches point of view briefly to the women to convey their own disgust toward him.
His openness later returns meeting Josechal, the Indigenous interpreter and only survivor of the Tonquin. Initially startled by Josechal’s different coloured eyes – one black, the other blue – Cox extends his hand in greeting, to the surprise of the interpreter. Although Josechal’s characterization is fictional, there was a real Quinault interpreter of this name who came to Astoria to report the massacre of the ship’s crew and the Tonquin’s destruction in Clayoquot Sound. The vessel was apparently blown apart by a wounded sailor detonating the powder magazine in a last desperate act of revenge and to prevent plundering, killing upwards of 200 Tla-o-qui-aht onboard and around the ship. The battle was precipitated by Captain Thorn insulting an elder during trade and refusing advice from Alexander MacKay, a former partner with the North West Company, who had crossed overland to the Pacific in 1793 with Alexander McKenzie. MacKay’s death deprived the Astor enterprise of one of its most experienced members.
Although Cox’s story receives more attention, Keepers of the Garden has a split narrative between Cox and Josechal. They are both haunted men, and Josechal’s flashbacks blend past and present, giving his chapters an evocative dreamlike quality. Traumatized in childhood, he can’t remember anything before meeting his Tla-o-qui-aht love Nuu, who took him to the Makah Nation for safety. Taken as a youth to interpret aboard trading ships due to his aptitude for languages, he yearns for her and is briefly reunited with her twice, the second time on the Tonquin’s ill-fated voyage.
Later asked to join the Astor expedition up the Columbia as an interpreter, he accompanies them in hopes of finding his lost tribe. This becomes the basis of his friendship with Cox, who Rodlie also depicts as an outsider, because he is Irish. Josechal’s view of the traders gives some welcome physical features to the Scottish traders, who are at times difficult to distinguish between, particularly the “Mc” highlanders. The character of Josechal becomes a composite of real, often unnamed interpreter-guides who travelled extensively with the fur trade, in some cases as far as China.
By June the brigade journeys up the Columbia River, splitting into four parties. Cox and Josechal are assigned with Clarke to establish a post in competition with the North West Company’s Spokane House. En route, Cox falls behind his party. By his own account, he rested in a grove that reminded him of home, lulling him to sleep. Rodlie precipitates his separation with another altercation with Clarke, cleverly turning Cox’s dream into a nightmare of remembering the incident that drove him from Ireland, a youthful prank that went terribly wrong. Awakening to a real nightmare, Cox finds he is alone, beginning his most famed historical adventure – becoming lost in the wilderness for two weeks.
Without any supplies, and eating only cherries occasionally, he searches for his party. Exposed to heat during the day and cold at night, he encounters rattlesnakes and fears wolf attacks, often suffering from thirst as well as hunger. While Cox in his own account tempers his blame of Clarke to mismanagement and prematurely abandoning the search efforts, Rodlie paints a grimmer picture of Clarke’s indifference, only overcome by fear of reprisal from the other traders.
When Cox stumbles upon an encampment of an Indigenous family, the point of view shifts between him and the family, who take him to the new Spokane Fort site. Disregarding Cox’s memory of this family’s liberal reward from the traders for his discovery, Rodlie pins this added neglect on Clarke, compelling Josechal to make a gift to them himself. To balance Clarke’s alleged indifference to his clerk’s survival, it might have provided some welcome relief to include the exuberant greeting of a French-Canadian voyageur, who at first didn’t recognize Cox’s sunburnt appearance, that the latter recalled.
Historians consider Cox an unreliable narrator at times, and despite his report of a quick recovery from his solo ordeal, his colleagues recorded otherwise. Rodlie develops his recuperation with Josechal taking Cox to a sweat lodge to “chase away the evil spirits,” assisted by the Sahaptin-speaking family, led by Agwush, who had saved him. While getting to know the family, Cox also confronts his past in Ireland in a sweat-lodge induced dream.
Amid the Astorians’ preparations to press farther into the interior, North West Company partners John McTavish and James McMillan arrive with the unnerving news that war had been declared between the Unites States and Britain, and their company ship Isaac Todd was on its way to claim Astoria, backed by a Royal Navy ship. Unfazed, Clarke persists with his plans, sending Cox and another clerk, Farnham, to establish another post to compete with the North West’s Saleesh House on the Flathead River.
Cox sometimes blurs the timeline in his own narrative, which in some respects make him an apt choice for fictionalization. During his fall journey to the Flathead territory with Farnham, Rodlie shifts a later episode of Flathead warriors torturing Blackfeet captives. Taking Cox’s inflated self-importance another step, she makes him solely responsible, implausibly, for persuading the Flathead Chief to release the captives. The doubtful drama of this plot device takes away the credit due to other fur traders, who need some redemptive qualities to be believable characters. Instead, they are depicted, with few exceptions, of treating the little Irishman “like he had leprosy.”
On the return spring brigade to bring the winter furs to Astoria, Clarke hangs an Indigenous man for stealing his silver goblet, imperilling the expedition. Rodlie makes the unnamed victim Agwush, Cox’s friend. He is portrayed taking the blame to protect his three-year-old son, who had taken the shiny goblet, thus exacerbating the already appalling punishment for theft. This draws Cox into the fray of attempting to prevent the tantrum-throwing Clarke from carrying out the summary execution.
Condensing the timeline, Rodlie has Clarke’s party almost immediately attacked by numerous Indigenous tribes, hearing of the outrage and converging on the boat encampment in an apparently united front. Disaster is averted by the arrival of partner Donald McKenzie, one of the few who Cox admires, with his party, alerted of the danger by Josechal. The guide is sent on to alert a clerk at another post, but the real massacre of that party happens in the background.
The hostilities foreshadow the brewing war with Britain at Astoria, but bloodshed is pre-empted by the pragmatic traders through negotiation. Cox, with several other British Astorians, takes employment with the North West Company. Rodlie invents a friendship between Cox and North West partner Alexander Henry, who both winter at the Okanagan post, along with Métis trapper Pierre Michel.
Cox’s story takes a more fanciful turn when Michel, and then Henry, are abducted by a band led by the legendary Ktunaxa two-spirited guide and her wife, although they are identified here as Cree. Rescuing the men, Josechal learns that the nefarious Clarke was behind the rash attempt to kidnap Cox, in revenge for his telling the Astorians of Clarke’s reckless execution. Returning to Astoria, Henry retaliates with his fists, culminating in his drowning on a boat enroute to the lately arrived Isaac Todd. Cox’s blame of Clarke for the death is a convoluted and historically tenuous twist to this section.
Heading home in 1817, Cox joins the arduous overland trek east across the mountains. Rodlie deftly weaves this party’s capture by Blackfeet with Cox’s earlier influence in releasing Blackfeet prisoners from their Flathead captors. Severely wounded in the clash, Josechal reveals an intriguing surprise in his past, possibly inspired by a real person who crops up in several historical accounts, including that of Cox. Their moving friendship provides respite from the harsh relationships and hazardous environment.
From the outset to the end, Clarke is portrayed as a two-dimensional villain, lacking redeeming traits. A more rounded interpretation might have built more tension and emphasized the potential of isolation to bring out both the worst and the best in characters. In her afterward, Rodlie justifies vilifying both Clarke and McDougall for fiction because “they really were assholes.” Given her heavy, often fictionalized charges against Clarke for causing deaths in multiple situations, more specific reasons than the “bad behaviour” mentioned in the epilogue would be helpful for context.
While Rodlie juggles an impressive number of characters, the numerous secondary characters sometimes disrupt the story, particularly in shifting points of view away from the protagonists. This is accentuated in dialogue when Rodlie head jumps between characters’ thoughts, making the conversation choppy and disorienting. Formatting errors, such as missing indents, broken lines, and missing paragraph separation between characters’ speech, also disjoint the dialogue. Better proof-reading would have improved clarity in the novel.
Rodlie has clearly done extensive research to weave this story together, as seen in her ample bibliography, including many sources on Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia. In addition to rendering accents phonetically in speech, she chose to use the early fur traders’ spellings of names. Nations and places such as “Oakanagan” are self-evident, although differing from Cox’s variation. Other names are more challenging to grasp, but they do lend a sense of the early fur traders grappling with many unfamiliar cultures and languages.
The disaster-prone Astor enterprise, preserved in history by several of its participants and witnesses, provides much material for dramatization. Rodlie has ambitiously and imaginatively brought this tumultuous era of the Northwest Coast history to life.
Born in London, UK, Vanessa Winn lives in Victoria, where she received a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature at the University of Victoria. Her second novel, Trappings (Oakheart Press, 2020), depicts real people and events in mid-19th-century British Columbia, during the aftermath of the gold rushes. It was included as a course textbook in a Public History graduate seminar at UVic. Her debut novel, The Chief Factor’s Daughter (Touchwood Editions, 2009) similarly portrays factually based social history during the Fraser River gold rush and was studied at universities in British Columbia. Her poetry has been published in various journals and she also writes non-fiction. Beyond her passion for the written word and historical research, she also teaches Argentine tango. Please visit her website. Editor’s note: Vanessa Winn has also reviewed a book by Valerie Green for The British Columbia Review, and her own recent book, Trappings, is reviewed here by Valerie Green.
The British Columbia Review
Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie
Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.
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