Review: Into the Heart of the Country — Pauline Holdstock

Read: 18
To Go: 82

Book List:
11. Behaving Badly — Isabel Wolff
12. The English Patient — Michael Ondaatje
13. Atonement — Ian McEwan
14. One Fifth Avenue — Candace Bushnell
15. Daughters-in-Law — Joanna Trollope
16. From the Secret Files of J Edgar Hoover — Athan Theoharis
17. Casino Royale — Ian Fleming
18. Into the Heart of the Country — Pauline Holdstock


Molly Norton, mixed-blood daughter of Governor Moses Norton, is ill-prepared for the ordeal fate has in store. Dressed in English clothes unsuited to the harsh conditions at Prince of Wales Fort and forbidden to practise the traditional skills of her mother’s people, Molly has spent her days by her father’s side, witness to his failing health and his increasingly tyrannical rule. Moses himself was torn from his own family as a young boy, and in his hard-won role as governor is suspicious of every man. He is particularly resentful of Matonabbee, the esteemed hunter and Dene captain, a man he once considered his brother. But it is the explorer Samuel Hearne who receives the brunt of Governor Norton’s temper when, returning from his expedition, he sets his sights on Molly. In the days that follow, every man, woman, and child of the fort will be confronted by forces larger than themselves. Allegiances will be challenged and promises will be broken — and sometimes upheld at enormous cost.

That description was outrageously long. The review starts down here!

I don’t know if you recall, but I actually won this book from the CBC in a Twitter contest near the end of last year. I was really excited to win a free book because yay, free! But at the same time, I wasn’t particularly excited about this book because…well, it looks like stereotypical Canadian fiction. (In case you aren’t familiar with that particular trope, stereotypical Canadian fiction often includes: historical motifs, natives, immigration, hardship, and pain. Choose at least two, and there you have a “Canadian” novel. That is, admittedly, changing rapidly, but the point is that this book didn’t look interesting to me at all.) So I put off reading it for close to six months, but eventually I figured I should actually take advantage of my prize.

I was pleasantly surprised! Though it started off really slow, and a little disorienting, Into the Heart of the Country picked up speed after a while, and got really interesting. There are basically three or four intertwining stories of the three generations of Nortons, with a heavy focus on Molly and her relationship with Samuel, who later becomes her husband. Including all three generations in the story got across this theme of perceived English superiority (a concept that’s pretty familiar to anyone who’s studied Canadian history); Richard Norton took Moses away from his mother to get a “proper English education” and, when Moses returned to the fort years later, that education led him to bitter jealousy when he didn’t immediately receive the respect and rank he believed he deserved. His behaviour as a father was also informed by perceived superiority: he insisted on English names for his daughters, and clothed them in English finery that just didn’t suit the Manitoba weather. And even Samuel Hearne, who was practically raised by Moses’s brother, still views his return to England as inevitable — and without Molly, as she’s still a native. It was kind of funny to see that pop up time and time again, in the least likely of characters.

At any rate, Into the Heart of the Country was a really good, thought-provoking read. Just a bit of a disorienting start. (I’d actually suggest going back and reading the first few first-person chapters after you finish the book, just to get a better grasp on what was going on there.)

Next book: Currently unsure.

– Kelsey


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