This astounding novel fully deserves to be called a saga. It begins
a thousand years ago in the time of the Vikings in Newfoundland. It
is crammed with incidents of war and peace, with fights to the
death and long nights of lovemaking, and with accounts of the rise
of local clan chiefs and the silent fall of great distant empires.
Out of the mists of the past it sweeps forward eight hundred years,
to the lonely death of the last of the Beothuk.
The Beothuk, of course, were the original native people of
Newfoundland, and thus the first North American natives encountered
by European sailors. Noticing the red ochre they used as protection
against mosquitoes, the sailors called them "Red-skins," a name
that was to affect an entire continent. As a people, they never
were to be understood. Even The Canadian Encyclopedia
admits: "Very little is known about Beothuk society and even less
about Beothuk history."
Until now. By adding his novelist's imagination to his knowledge as
an anthropologist and a historian, Bernard Assiniwi has written a
convincing account of the Beothuk people through the ages. To do so
he has given us a mirror image of the history rendered by
Europeans. For example, we know from the Norse Sagas that four
slaves escaped from the Viking settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows.
What happened to them? Bernard Assiniwi supplies a plausible
answer, just as he perhaps solves the mystery of the Portuguese
ships that sailed west in 1501 to catch more Beothuk, and
disappeared from the paper records forever.
The story of the Beothuk people is told in three parts. "The
Initiate" tells of Anin, who made a voyage by canoe around the
entire island a thousand years ago, encountering the strange
Vikings with their "cutting sticks" and their hair "the colour of
dried grass." His encounters with whales, bears, raiding Inuit and
other dangers, and his survival skills on this epic journey make
for fascinating reading, as does his eventual return to his home
where, with the help of his strong and active wives, he becomes a
legendary chief, the father of his people.
"The Invaders" takes us to the time when Basque, Breton, Spanish,
Portuguese, French and English fishermen and explorers thronged the
waters off Newfoundland. All too often they raided, kidnapped or
slaughtered the natives, who - unable to communicate in words -
learned to fight back in guerrilla attacks. We learn the names of
the men and women who led this heroic unequal struggle, brilliantly
imagined here as it must have been.
The final section is able to stick very closely to recorded fact;
it is entitled "Genocide." We learn of the state of the Beothuk
nation by the late 1700s, hunted down to a man, a woman, and a
child) with a bounty on their heads. Here the heartbreaking story
is told by Demasduit (named "Mary March" because she was captured
in March) and finally by Shanawdithit, the last Living Memory of
the Beothuk, who died in St. John's on June 5, 1829.
To emphasize the authenticity of this important book - its voice
filling one of the silences of history - it concludes with a
Chronology of Events in Beothuk History, and a Lexicon of the
Beothuk language. These are unusual additions for a novel. Yet this
unforgettable book is something much more than a work of fiction;
it is an imaginative reconstruction of a history that has been
destroyed. Whether you are a Bouguishamesh or an Addizabad-Zéa, you
will remember this book.