Canongate U.S.
Canongate U.S.
Canongate U.S.


A Novel

by Margaret Elphinstone

“With grandly accessible language and brilliant strokes Margaret Elphinstone re-creates a place within which we learn much of the capability of the human heart to endure and quicken with hope. The time is both dramatically distant and unsettlingly close to our own. . . . It speaks plainly and eloquently of matters grave and dark, of beauties still possible, of a world with faith and mystery. A remarkable triumph.” –Jeffrey Lent, author of In The Fall

  • Imprint Canongate U.S.
  • Page Count 480
  • Publication Date April 18, 2005
  • ISBN-13 978-1-8419-5643-5
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $14.00

About The Book

“A marvelous . . . rich and moving . . . historical novel . . . Elphinstone has created a humble and courageous hero, a man historically and culturally remote, but strikingly relevant to our own age of war.” –Ron Charles, The Christian Science Monitor

Voyageurs garnered praise for both its historical versimilitude and its exacting character portraits, as well as the story’s contemporary relevance in a time of international conflict. Elphinstone’s magnificent sixth novel, Voyageurs, gives us Mark Greenhow, a naive and peaceful Quaker who lands on the shores of North America on the eve of the War of 1812, thinking only of finding the missing sister he has always admired for her adventurous spirit.

Mark hitches a ride with the voyageurs who have canoed the rivers, transporting the tons of furs that feed the trade that has made the region a battleground of the French and British empires. Though Mark enters this brave new world with his conscience clean and his convictions sound, his encounters with a place and people he never could have imagined test his rigid upbringing. The backwoods of Canada have certainly led his sister astray; she has been excommunicated from the Society of Friends for running off with a non-Quaker. After her child is stillborn she runs again, deep into Indian country.

On this increasingly desperate search, Mark finds himself among spies and domestic warriors, displaced natives, infidels, and religious folk who must fight to maintain their particular way of life. Elphinstone’s crisp and effortless prose, coupled with her riveting, organic way with description, her fully drawn characters, and the history of the region, make this novel an astonishingly authentic and profoundly satisfying work of historical fiction.

Tags Literary


“The illusion of a past time is beautifully sustained by Elphinstone’s detailed re-creations of indigenous (mostly Native Canadian and American) period detail, and by her narrator’s reserved and wondering voice, whose lilting, dignified rhythms perfectly capture his unshakeable goodness and innocence. . . . A stunning work of historical fiction, with many points of comparison to Canadian Guy Vanderhaeghe’s The Last Crossing.” –Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“With grandly accessible language and brilliant strokes Margaret Elphinstone re-creates a place within which we learn much of the capability of the human heart to endure and quicken with hope. The time is both dramatically distant and unsettlingly close to our own. . . . It speaks plainly and eloquently of matters grave and dark, of beauties still possible, of a world with faith and mystery. A remarkable triumph.” –Jeffrey Lent, author of In The Fall

“This meticulously crafted, self-reflexive historical . . . novel’s interest lies in Mark’s struggle to reconcile his faith with the verities and practicalities of the ‘real world” and in Elphinstone’s mastery of early 19th-century argot

.” –Publishers Weekly

“Elphinstone rivets with her descriptions of portages along precipitous cliffs and voyages down raging rivers and across treacherous lakes.” –Library Journal

“Elphinstone brings the landscapes and peoples of 1800s Canada back to thrilling life in her pacy, colorful and intelligent epic: the finest trip along these rivers since Brian Moore’s great Black Robe.” –Independent (London)

“The articulation of . . . ambiguities through Mark’s appealingly innocent, hopeful voice is the greatest achievement of an artfully woven fiction also graced by totally convincing re-creations of the furnishings, folkways, and attitudes of a vanished and partially understood past.” –Bruce Allen, Boston Globe

“A canny, graceful writer whose prose is as clear and clean as Greenland air.” –Globe and Mail (Toronto)

“It’s a long time since I’ve read a novel with more pleasure and interest. Voyaguers is a strong story, very well told.” –Sunday Herald (Glasgow)

“Its fidelity to the mores and tribal rites of American Indians is matched only by its knowledgeable threading of the history of early trading in British Canada.” –The Scotsman


Chapter 1

Sixth Month, 1839
Where to begin? When I look at that first letter now, the paper is soft with much folding, and the ink is beginning to turn brown. Aunt Judith has crossed her lines, and her script betrays signs of the moiderment under which she laboured. It is no matter; I have her words by heart, almost, and it is the work of a few moments to transcribe them:

From the house of Thomas Nolan
Ste Marie du Sault
Upper Canada
th day of Ninth Month, 1809

To my sister Susan at Highside, Mungrisdale, in Cumberland,

This follows within a week of my last letter to thee, my dear sister, and if God wills it the ill news will overtake the good.

Little did I think, when I described to thee our voyage from Niagara to York, and thence by the far-flung Quaker Meetings of Upper Canada to the Lake called Huron, where we visited several Indian villages upon the islands, and thence to this far outpost at the rapids of St Mary’s, that I should have such terrible news to communicate to thee.

I told thee in my last how the lad got off the sloop, and how when Rachel saved him the Scotchman stopped the fight and got her safe away to the house of a man called Ermatinger until the hue and cry died down, and how he saw us safe back across the river. Would that that were all the story! Oh, my dear sister, what am I to say to thee? She has been so tender a companion, she seemed so clear in the Light, so zealous in our ministry.

Susan, I did not know she was meeting him. He came to our third meeting, and I thought the Truth had reached him. I knew nothing of the gatherings at the Johnston house. I knew there was dancing and singing, for we heard it even at the Nolans’ when we lay in our beds at night, but I knew not that our very own ewe lamb was led astray into the wilderness, beguiled by that wolf in sheep’s clothing.

What can I say to thee? She left me a note, with her direction. They have gone south into the Michigan Territory, which is a part of the United States, in name anyway, for it is far beyond the settled frontier, peopled only by military outposts, trading stations and savage Indian tribes. The direction she gives is: La Maison de Madame Framboise, Mackinac Island, the Michigan Territory. She says she will be married before a priest at Mackinac. She says it is not possible that we should understand. I do not feel called upon to follow her.

In Peace and with much sorrow, Thy loving sister, Judith Scott

It was I that fetched this letter from the receiving office in Keswick, and brought it home to my mother. My heart leapt when the clerk passed me the letter, for we had heard nothing of our travellers for almost a year. (The letter Judith mentions had never reached us, and we had no notion what she meant by the lad from the sloop, and it was the first we had heard of the Scotchman altogether.) My mother was chopping rhubarb at the kitchen table when I came in, and I remember how she slit the wafer open with the sticky knife, not even pausing to wipe it.

Her hands were trembling. A year is a long time, and one cannot help but fear for those called upon to minister in the wilderness.

When our first grief was spent, I wrote to Rachel more than once, but there was never any reply. She was indeed lost to us. About three months after Judith’s first letter came, she sent another, enclosing a copy of the Minute that recorded my sister’s disownment from our Religious Society. Judith says,

Friends here have asked me to send thee this copy of the Minute from our Monthly Meeting here at Yonge Street, disowning thy daughter, my beloved niece Rachel, no longer in unity with us since she was married with a priest, contrary to the rules of our Religious Society, to the Scotchman named Alan Mackenzie, an employee of the North West Company. Thee would know, if thee was familiar with these parts, that the North West enjoys a monopoly of the fur trade from here almost, so I believe, to the Pacific shore, to the detriment of all sober independent traders. Its clerks, like its owners, are mostly Highland Scotchmen, and notorious for their ungodly manner of life. It is more usual, indeed, for them to take women among the Indians, in the heathen fashion, and not to be doing with any kind of marriage at all. How it was that Rachel should have been persuaded to elope by this young man I could not have conceived, had I not met him. But – and perhaps this will be some small comfort to thee in thy distress – I did meet him, on the occasion of the brawl that was fought on the jetty at the Soo, when Rachel . . . but I recounted that incident in my last, and would not have thee pay an extra sixpence for me to repeat myself (assuming that my first letter did reach thee). His conduct on that occasion perhaps explains the predilection shown by Rachel for his society, and indeed I was not myself unmoved by his kind goodwill towards us, although I cannot condone the violent means he used to scatter our adversaries.

There was little comfort in this, but my parents bore all courageously. Only sometimes my mother would say, “But why does Rachel not write to us, Mark? Why can she not write?” I had no answer to give. We prayed for Rachel every day, and gradually I stopped looking eagerly for a letter every time I went to the Receiving Office in Keswick.

But when the third letter from Aunt Judith came more than a year later, I realised when I read it that I had been living in hope after all. I have that letter before me now:

In the care of Yonge Street Meeting
Beman’s Corners
Province of Upper Canada
t day of Eleventh Month, 1810

To my sister Susan at Highside, Mungrisdale (and my good­brother Caleb Greenhow),

I had thought the letter I had writ thee in eighth month of last year would be the hardest it were ever my ill-fortune to pen. I have not heard from thee again, so cannot even be sure that thee received my last. But – Oh, my poor Susan – the news I have now to relate is infinitely worse than the blow I had to inflict upon thee a twelvemonth since. Our dear daughter was lost to us then, out of unity with us by her own act. But at least we might hope she would find a measure of worldly happiness with the man she had chosen, even though she had cast off her family and her Religious Society, indeed, all that she had ever had, to place herself at his side. But now a circumstance has occurred more appalling than anything we might have conceived of. I enclose the young man’s letter to me.

She is lost, Susan! She has vanished beyond the pale of the known world! And yet she lives, perhaps. We cannot know. I can tell thee no more than Alan Mackenzie’s letter tells me. Here it is, for what it is worth.

My heart goes out to thee, my dear sister (and to my good brother too). I pray for thee, and remember thee among our Friends in the Meeting here in Yonge Street. If there be any thing I may do to comfort thee, tell me of it, but indeed I know there is nothing. We all mourn her. She was much loved, thee knows, among all the Friends whom we visited. Her ministry was a comfort and a shining light to many. If her fall was great, we must not let it obscure the truth of her witness; she did much good. For myself, I mourn a beloved niece and a courageous travelling companion, one who in the greatest discomfort and adversity could yet make me smile. I miss her. And for thee, who have lost a cherished daughter, the loss is so much more. My thoughts are with thee, sister. I cannot say more, and indeed there is no more space on this sheet.

In Friendship and in Love, Judith Scott

It must indeed have been a hard letter to write. Through the open window I hear the little beck that tumbles by our house; having heard it all my life I am seldom aware of it, but sometimes, as now, I am aware of it accompanying my thoughts, its moods changing as mine do.

Alan’s letter is quite unlike Judith’s. Alan’s letters, even under the duress of emotion, are always inscribed in the fairest copperplate – he was a clerk, one must remember, as well as an adventurer – and sometimes (though not, of course, on this occasion) illustrated by neat little pen sketches of such subjects as particularly take his fancy. When I first laid eyes on this letter, I knew nothing of Alan. It seemed to me a cruel letter, and the lovely writing was like a twist of the knife in the wound, that he should be so collected about what he had to say. I hated him – if that be a sin let me confess it – which all goes to show how wrong an impression a scrap of writing can give. It tells thee what thee must know, but there is no reaching the living man through the dead words on the paper. I read Alan’s letter when it arrived enclosed in Judith’s – in fact it was my task to read it to my parents, and I relished it not – and I learned nothing of Alan in it. I saw a cold man of words who had not even loved my sister, which, if he had done, might begin to excuse what he had done to her.

Alan’s letter has travelled further than Judith’s. At one time it has got damp. The paper is very soft and like to tear at a touch. I smooth it out very gently. Outside the shower has passed and the spring sun illuminates the page. I glance up, and the grey mist has gone from Grasmoor. The hills look very near. I read Alan’s letter to my Aunt Judith once again.

Montreal Michilimackinac Company

Mackinac Island

October 30th, 1810

Dear Mrs Scott,

It is with a sad heart I write. Although I ran away with your niece Rachel it was done with the best will in the world. I loved her, and I would have married her before you all, if your absurd rules had not forbidden it. There was nothing underhand in what we did. I told you that before.

Rachel had a child, but he was born dead. She was not the same after: quite mazed, in fact, so far away in her unhappiness I could not comfort her. We had been trading in the country of the Ottawa, and were on our way north by the lake Michigan. We camped on the south island of Manitou. She wandered off at twilight; it was the way she was at that time. There was no reaching her.

She did not come back. Not that night, nor the next, nor the one after that. It is a big island, but we searched it as well as we could. There were some Indians preparing to leave their summer village and go back to the mainland. They did not have her, I know that, and they helped us to search. There had been no one else ashore so far as I know. People come and go in the summer. There’s no way to tell.

We stayed for her as long as we could. Winter was coming, and I could not have kept my voyageurs there any longer. If she were still in the woods she must have perished with cold and hunger by the time we left, but we searched and searched, and I am sure she was not there.

Either she went into the lake herself – she was very unhappy. She was not like herself at all after the child died. It was like living with a stranger – or she was taken. That is all I know. I am very sorry, Mrs Scott, to have to tell you this. We left the island four days ago, and came back into Mackinac last night.

No doubt you will tell her family in England. I know she has a brother, she spoke of him a great deal in our early days – no matter, I am out of your life now.

Alan Mackenzie

The first time I read that letter in this house, my father put his head down on his arms and grat, and my mother with set face said to me, “Let me see the man’s letter.”

I handed her Alan’s letter, and looked awkwardly away from my father. I loved him well, but I had never seen him weep, and I did not know what to do other than to ignore it.

“He says he loved her,” my mother said presently. ‘does thee think that what he writes is the truth?” “That he loved her?”

“Any of it. I know not.” My mother turned away, and drew her arm across her face. “It is the not knowing. Caleb, how do we bear not knowing?”

I took Alan’s letter back, and her control broke. She stretched out both her arms to my father, “Caleb, Caleb . . .”

I stepped outside and shut the door upon them. They could comfort one another better than I could, I supposed. There was still a little slairy snow lying in a corner of the garth, and the chickens huddled against the barn door out of the teeth of the wind. I went into the barn and sat down on the edge of the hay where we’d been taking out the winter fodder. I read Judith’s letter again, and then Alan’s letter, twice. I thought about what my mother said, about not knowing, not ever knowing. I sat and thought so long that a little mouse went back to scuttering in and out over the stone doorstep carrying grains from the floor to her hole behind the haystack. At last a gust of wind sent the barn door banging back against the wall. I roused myself, and realised I was freezing where I sat. But I had thought out what I must do.

My parents were still in the kitchen. My father sat in his place at the head of the table, and my mother, red-eyed but composed, was laying out porridge bowls and bread and cheese for the evening meal. When my father saw me he held out his hand to me. I took it, and said to him, so my mother could hear too, ‘mother’s right. At the very least we have to know. Better still, we have to find her. She was dead and is alive again, she was lost and is found. We have to believe in that.” My mother had turned away from the fire, the wooden spoon in her hand, and was staring at me. “I will go and look for her,” I said.

Our Quaker Friends used to say that Rachel should have been the boy, for if she could not find adventure at home she would seek it abroad. I was piqued by the implication that I would have done better with the lass’s part, for indeed that was never the case. I was a bold lad enough, but not unbiddable. From an early age I would be out on the fell by myself, and by the time I was twelve years old I had climbed every route on Blencathra that a two-legged creature could possibly attempt, and much of Skiddaw to boot. We had upwards of three hundred hefted sheep on the fell at any one time when I was a lad, and my father used me as shepherd from the time I could well be left alone on the hill. Besides the sheep we had thirty head of cattle in our meadows around Glenderamackin beck, and my mother kept poultry and a couple of pigs along with the dairy. The name Greenhow is well respected in these parts, and our line of the family have lived on this farm since the days of the Valiant Sixty, ay, and for half a dozen generations before that too, in the days when Friends were not, and naught was written down to prove it, but that is what they say.

My fore-elders at Highside were early convinced, for our founding Friend George Fox came to our house late in Fifth Month, 1653, on his way to visit Thomas Bewley at Haltcliff Hall by Gillfoot, where our Monthly Meeting meets now. Mark Greenhow (whose namesake I am), being convinced by George Fox himself, was one of the earliest to testify according to the Light Within, and suffered much for it, being imprisoned in Carlisle jail three times, the term of his natural life being much shortened by his vicissitudes. His son and daughters also lived in the Truth, and received the gift of ministry, travelling in the service of it both in England and Scotland, and at last dying in the faith. When in the early years of the last century the Quaker Meeting House was built at Mosedale, the Greenhows of Highside were among the founders of Mosedale Particular Meeting, and we have been members of that Meeting ever since.

My father was a statesman of Cumberland – that is to say, he owned his own hill farm – and he was an elder of Caldbeck Monthly Meeting, and I in my turn am both these things, and neither the high fells nor our Friends in Meeting are like to condone a life of idleness or ease. I have a sort of fame in these parts for my knowledge of the fells, and that is the only kind of adventure I ever sought. Among Friends these are not, God be thanked, days of great Sufferings, but if witness must be borne I have been there to uphold the Truth, even as my forefathers did in the first days.

But Rachel had always a roving disposition, and if adventure came not to her, why then, she would seek it out for herself. And as for me . . . Let me tell thee this:

My mother kept a flock of white geese in a pen above the rushing beck that flows by our house. In the middle of the pen there stood a young willow that was kept cut back for withies, so there was a place about three foot up like a little house within. When Rachel was just a toddling bairn, she set her heart upon the little house within the withy stems, but she was feart of the geese, and could not get across the clarty yard without one of us to take her. Sometimes my mother or I would let her in, whiles we were feeding the geese and that, but never for long enough. And then one day when no one else was by, she braved the geese, though they were taller than she was, and fierce in their hissing. They chased her and she fell flat on her face in the mud, but she got up again at once, and ran, not for the gate, but for the house in the withies. She climbed up just in time, but the geese were hissing round her, and she dare not get down. She was stuck there two whole hours, and missed her dinner. When we went to look for her, it was I that found her and led her back, for I was six years old and strong withal, and I had a big stick. But – mark this – she was not one whit abashed, nor sorry, only pleased with herself that she had done the thing she dared. She was never one to worry about the way back. I knew, though, from early on, that it was my place to worry about it for her. Rachel expected that of me, and so did my parents; indeed, it is what I expected of myself.

This is the first morning I have devoted to my new purpose. I waited until we were done with the lambing, and it is not yet hay time. The daylight hours are at their longest, which is a consideration with me – I have taken to wearing spectacles for close work now – and my desk is placed so I have all the natural light there is. The truth is that my sons could manage the farm, and the guiding, quite well without me, but I am not yet ready to relinquish more than a little. I’ve always wished to be a man of letters, but had not the time to pursue my desire, nor was I sure that Friends would think well of it. I’ve now reached the autumn of my life, and I have two tall sons to bear the burden and heat of a new day. As for the opinion of the Meeting: to be honest, I am less exercised by that than I was wont to be. In short, I care not, so long as I am in unity with them on essential matters. On Second Day and Fifth Day I will dedicate the morning hours to this work, unless pressing matters of business intervene.

I have folded up the four letters again and put them away. I keep all the letters relating to that strange episode in my life in the tortoiseshell box that was Alan’s wedding present to me (for he sent me a present, contrary to the rule of our Society, whether I would or no). The box is kept on the mantelshelf in this room, which was the best parlour in my parents’ day. Now I keep it more as a study to myself, with my desk in the window, where I may sit and look south across the flank of Souther Fell, over the smoking chimneys of Keswick ten miles to the west, to a gleaming sliver of Derwentwater half-hid by oaks, and the grey hump of Grasmoor beyond. When I was first able to lift mine eyes to the hills, this is what I saw, and I hope my own hills will be the last thing I see on earth before my sight is dimmed for ever. I have crossed a great ocean, and been far into the wilderness. I am rich in memories, but I wish for nothing more now than to dwell in my own place. At least, I would wish that, were it not that Alan . . . the truth is, I would be content even now, were it not for my sister Rachel.

I should be content; even the room in which I sit reflects back to me the blessings of a lifetime. The brocade sofa stands in the same place it occupied when this was my mother’s parlour, because sometimes we all sit in here in the evening, and sometimes I have visitors during the day. The picture over the mantelshelf I bought some years ago; it is a view of the jaws of Borrowdale by Francis Towne. He has captured the vibrant colouring of autumn, and the wild sky above it, to admiration, although one cannot deny a touch of romantic licence, as certain Friends have pointed out. My parents had no pictures in the house, and indeed there are some Friends who even now think that such luxuries are not consistent with our practice of simplicity. But I give them the precedent of Thomas Wilkinson, my good friend at Yanwath, who regarded books, pictures and ornamental gardens as all alike gifts of God, and there are many Friends furth of Cumberland who live in a style which we in the heartland of our Society would consider overly lavish.

Be that as it may, the other picture, on the far wall, was brought to me last winter from Upper Canada. It is a watercolour sketch of canoes arriving at the foot of the Portage des Chats, with a romantic representation of the falls on the right. The young artist, one William Bartlett, made the sketch when visiting the Falls last summer. He subsequently fell in with Alan in Montreal, being told that Alan might subscribe to a book of engravings Bartlett was making of Upper Canada. Alan bought the painting and charged him to deliver it to me when he returned to England. The young fellow discharged his commission in person, bringing the picture to Highside on his way to Scotland. It was a short dark day at the back end of the year, but in the afternoon the sun set in a cloud of glory beyond Grasmoor, and our artist left his meal to make a pencil sketch of it from our doorstep. He finished painting it the next day, and presented it to my wife, as a mindful return for her hospitality.

I remember the Portage des Chats very well. I look at the painting of the great falls, the spray flung from the rocks, the tumbling waters below, all overhung with twisted pines. On the left, in the foreground, I see the reflections in the still water in the little bay at the foot of the portage, the voyageurs unloading the canoes and wading ashore with them. I see the men hurrying up the rocky path, bent double under the immense loads that only a voyageur can lift. I’m glad Alan sent William Bartlett’s picture to me. It helps me to remember.

There is also my notebook. Unlike Alan I cannot draw, but I can make pictures with words well enough, and when I think that I was but three or four-and-twenty at the time, I reckon I kept my account well enough. My first plan was to copy the notebook out fair, adding the observations of hindsight as I did so. The notebook is worn and fragile, its green leather binding spoilt by damp and being dried out too fast by wood fires. The ink was never good, and is now almost faded away in places, so that if I had not written the words myself I should be hard put to make out the sense of them. Sometimes I was writing by firelight or twilight, and the script was barely legible when it first flowed from my pen. But on the whole I can read it, though no one else would make anything of it. I talked to my family about my plan, and they said I should not meddle with the words I had once written. When I was a young man I wrote as a young man, and it would be untrue to my earlier self, they said, to alter that. I heeded their advice, and so I am beginning my story afresh. I will use the notebook to guide me, but I will not tamper with the wording of the original, however much I think now it may be improved upon. Twenty-seven years is a long time. Young Mark Greenhow is but a memory; I am not him . . . and yet I am, because sometimes I remember very clearly indeed what it was like to be him.

(I’ve already digressed too far from that history which it is my sole purpose to recount. I must deal strictly with myself. In future I’ll keep any irresistible observations to a footnote, as Gibbon does in his Histories. My sons will laugh some day at this stratagem, recognising the need for it all too well. Perhaps it will remind them, in after days, of what their old father was like; I would rather they smiled at the memory than not.)

The tortoiseshell box has a spring lock. I leave the key in, because there is nothing in my life that needs to be hidden. I get up and replace the box on the mantelshelf. I sit at my desk again, my hands clasped in front of me, gazing out of the window while another shower obliterates the hills. I bought this same desk from Thomas de Quincey. (It was made especially to fit his upstairs study in Dove Cottage; he acquired a larger one when he moved to Fox Ghyll.) When I have business to attend to, I sit at my desk with my back to the room, looking out, but when the light fails and the curtains are drawn, I use my father’s mahogany resting chair that sits by the hearth. I’ve built bookshelves in the recesses on each side of the chimney breast. I have upwards of a thousand volumes now, and however many shelves I put in, they seem always to be overflowing. The Friends’ Journals were my father’s. I buy works of local interest as fast as they appear, which is an expensive hobby, but I think my sons may live to thank me for the investment. The travel books are also my own purchases. All are in English; Alan may mock at me for my linguistic inability, but I have never felt called upon to remedy it further since I came home. I have enough to do out of doors during the daylight, and there is only so much reading a man can do of an evening, when he has a hopeful family to claim his attention besides.

Copyright ” 2003 by Margaret Elphinstone. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.