Friday, January 9, 2015

THE LURE OF THE PAST by Juliet Waldron

I love the study of history so much that I’ve always wanted to share that love with others. Like many before me, this longing leads to a desire to write historical novels, the kind which can pull the reader  into another (and often quite unfamiliar) mindset.  The first part of the job is research, a stage I often find easier than the actual work of writing, plotting and character creation. I often read all through and then around subjects, ones which are sometimes rather distant from my original focus.   A used bookstore with a stash of non-fiction can be a dangerous place for my pocketbook. My favorite finds are the sort with long bibliographies, appendices and a high reliance upon original source.

Recently, I picked up “Champlain’s Dream,” by historian David Hackett Fischer, an account of the earliest days of French Canada.  Champlain, a pragmatic, thoughtful French explorer of the early 1600’s, had emerged from the bloody violence of France’s religious wars with an open mind . He'd  made it his life’s work to induce people of varied backgrounds to cooperate for the common good. His belief in humankind, whatever their national origin or religion, allowed him to approach the Indigenous Sauvage with an attitude of respect and interest not shared by many Europeans of the time.

A dream is ordinarily an ephemeral thing. But here, because Champlain recounted his experience 400 + years ago in the forests near the lake now named for him, is one of his. With a war party of sixty Indians, he and two other Frenchmen traveled into the forbidden territory of the Iroquois, with who the Algonquins were eternally at war.  They traveled at night, and every morning, as they drew closer to the “Eastern Gate,” of the Iroquois, guarded the Mohawk, the chiefs asked Champlain “if he had dreamed about their enemies.” For many days, he did not.  Then, one morning, about 11 a.m., he awoke and called the Indians to him. At last, as they’d seemed to expect, the white captain had dreamed.

“I dreamed I saw in the lake near a mountain, our enemies, the Iroquois drowning before our eyes. I wanted to rescue them, but our Indian allies told me that we should let them all die, for they were worth nothing.”

David Hackett Fischer then adds: “The Indians recognized the place in Champlain’s dream as a site that lay just ahead, and they were much relieved…To Champlain’s Indian allies, dreams not only revealed the future. They controlled it.”

A few days later, the Mohawk encountered European firearms in battle for the first time. Surprised by the stunning sight of a man in armor and two sharpshooters wielding long-distance, deadly weapons stationed amid Algonquin ranks, they were defeated. Champlain’s dream, seen by his allies as prophecy, was a true one.

This is the sort of primary source tidbit that writers love, the kind which reveals a vital difference between the mental world of European and Amerindian. It also tells us something about Champlain.  There he was, with two white companions amid a war party upon whose goodwill their survival depended. They were moving through a gigantic, primal forest toward a dangerous objective. We learn that he stumbled into another kind of consciousness, one which transcended his usual understanding of linear time.  The chiefs were now confident of the battles before them and pleased that their new friend had dreamed so positively. Champlain, though he does not speak of it, must have been privately amazed by this rationally inexplicable experience. 

~Juliet Waldron

Books We Love