The Nine Lives of Charlotte Taylor was one of those books that I picked up over and over again on my many trips to the bookstore before finally taking it home. It seems any time I have a situation like this, I end up wondering just why it took me so long to get around to buying and reading the book, as it is invariably excellent. This was no exception.
Sally Armstrong is the great-great-great granddaughter of Charlotte Taylor, of the title. She states that she long wanted to write the story of Charlotte Taylor, the first female settler on the Miramichi Bay, and this book originally started out as non-fiction. However, after being frustrated by several gaps in the historical documentation, Armstrong chose to write the story as a fictional account, peppered with the known details of Taylor’s life. The effect is a very good fictional account of early Canadian history.
There are several known facts of Charlotte Taylor’s life – she left her high-society family in 1775, running away with a household servant. She spent her life on the Miramichi, where she would have three husbands and bear ten children, all of whom lived well into adulthood. She was a vehement activist on her own and her family’s behalf, fighting for her land rights and the deeds to the plots that her family cleared and lived upon – going so far as to travel to Fredericton in the company of a Native man to secure those deeds. Lastly, she lived well into her eighties, passing away in 1841 at which time she had a Native service as part of her burial.
Building upon the basis of these facts, Armstrong fleshes out her story, telling of Taylor’s travel across the ocean to the West Indies, to her time spent in a Mi’kmaq camp on the Baie de Chaleurs where she developed a lifelong friendship with the Indians and Acadians that lived there, before her marriage to a former captain. She describes in detail the arduous and dangerous task of clearing the land and building a life on the Miramichi during a time of tremendous unrest between the original settles, the arriving Loyalists from the American War, the privateers, and the Indians for whom the land belonged to first. Woven through all this is the story of Charlotte Taylor’s relationship with Wioche, the Native man who she meets when she first arrives in the Baie de Chaleurs, maintaining a relationship with him over the course of her life. While part of the story is fictional according to Armstrong, it is well-written and believable, and offers a glimmer of light and hope in a story that is often bleak in its outlook.
Taylor does not have an easy life, and some of the best writing is in Armstrong’s descriptions of the difficulties in every day life. There is a beauty in the simplicity and occasional starkness in Armstrong’s writing, as though her writing is mimicking the terrain itself. I found some comparison in her writing to that of Elizabeth Hay in Late Nights on Air, in the same simple descriptions of a difficult land and the people who make their lives there against great odds.
I did feel that the book was weakest in Taylor’s descriptions of the many historical events during this period (the clashes between the Loyalists and old settles, the process of parceling and deeding the land, the division of Nova Scotia into two provinces). Occasionally in Armstrong’s attempt to insert the known facts, The Nine Lives of Charlotte Taylor starts to veer into history text territory, but without the fleshing out of the details to ensure that the reader is certain of the context. Towards the end of the novel I particularly found that there was a lot of detail hastily inserted that could have been better explained, and that events were careening towards the rather hasty ending without the deftness shown in the first 3/4 of the book. Overall though, I felt that more often than not, the book came down on the right side of the delicate balance between historical detail and the fictional narrative.
I adore historical fiction but have been disappointed that most historical fiction is set in Europe. I think this is a fine addition to Canadian historical fiction, a genre I would be delighted to see more of.