I love reading all sorts of books, but I usually draw the line on stories that feature any of the stereotypes of North American history: naval combat, redcoats, settlers fighting Indians, roughneck sailors and lumberjacks — you get the picture. So you might imagine my consternation when I had a look at Paul Almond’s debut novel, The Deserter, which is an historical work — the first of a series — and full of sailors, redcoats, naval misadventure, French and English settlers and Indians — all the stuff of stereotype and boring history classes. And then I started to read it. Can you talk about thrill-a-minute Canadian history? You can now. Paul Almond has worked for many years as a TV and film director, and his skill shows in the drama and pacing of this first-rate read. The Deserter is based on a true story, and its main character, Thomas Manning is a young Englishman who joins His Majesty’s Navy in the early 1800s with the aim of jumping ship and making a life for himself in the new world. Desertion carried a savage form of death penalty for anyone unlucky enough to get caught, so Thomas’s escape at the story’s dramatic opening is a nerve-wracking, edge-of-the-seat experience. The book is full of telling incident laced with danger because that was the nature of life in a land that was treacherous for Europeans who had no idea how to live in it.
Yet there’s a real heart and soul to this story that moves along at such a brisk pace. At its centre is Thomas — and while he wants freedom from the constraints of life in England, he’s not today’s caricature of the rugged individualist, out to go it alone. Thomas is brave, but he has enough humility and common sense to acknowledge his own foolish mistakes that put his life in danger. Best of all are the many ways in which he grows and changes through his interactions with the band of Micma’q Indians he encounters in the Gaspe region of Quebec. They, too, are fully-realised characters — an interpreter who speaks four languages, a thoughtful chief whose life he saves at risk to his own, and most of all, the young and gifted Native woman with whom he wants to share his life. Almond’s done impressive research of Aboriginal traditions and rituals, and while Thomas gradually comes to realise the wisdom and intelligence of the Micma’q people, the author doesn’t romanticise their primitive living conditions, their nomadic way of life and their bouts with near-starvation. The novel ends with a devastating crisis for Thomas and a poignant resolution. We have to wait for the next volume to find out how this good man fares as a settler in Quebec’s New World.
The Deserter is the kind of book you need to give to anyone in your life who can’t stand reading. In fact, every school should have a stack of these in the library. This is history with a beating heart — not to mention a man o’war, redcoats, native people, lumberjacks and more than a few bears. You’re bound to enjoy The Deserter by Paul Almond, published in Toronto by McArthur and Company.