Philip Roy’s young adult novel, Blood Brothers In Louisbourg (CBU Press), is a swiftly told, exciting, informative read that will also appeal to older readers (as it did for me).
Two young men of very different characters find their lives intersecting at the Fortress of Louisbourg in the spring of 1744 as tension between France and England intensifies on the road to war. The boys, as the reader soon becomes aware, share the same father, a military engineer who helped build the fortress and cannot wait for the coming conflict and the glory it will bring to his career. He wants his sensitive, educated son, Jacques, to follow in his footsteps but all Jacques wants to do, much to his father’s growing frustration, is to play his violoncello and read Voltaire.
Jacques is forced to accompany his father to the New World and become a soldier, keeping a cold lonely midnight post on the Fortress battlements. There he sees a young, armed Mi’kmaw warrior scale the outer wall of the fortress and disappear into the town, obviously searching for something or someone. Jacques is duty-bound to report what he sees but, for some reason he can’t explain, he doesn’t.
Two Feathers, the warrior, is searching for his father: a “bluecoat” as he refers to the French. Led by spirit guides and with the pendant given to his mother by his father, Two Feathers is sure he will recognize the man when he sees him. During the course of his investigations, Two Feathers encounters Celestine, the daughter of a wealthy merchant, and they develop a friendship without knowing that Jacques has also developed feelings for the young woman while giving her music lessons.
Roy writes economically but with sensitivity and a strong visual sense: highlights are a joyously rowdy musical soiree in an Acadian village, a futile and deadly skirmish between French and British troops, and the climactic siege of Louisbourg, which is conveyed in a blur of first person impressions.
The book switches from the point of view of his two young heroes with Jacques’s side told in the first person and Two Feathers’ in the third, occasionally, allowing the reader to see the same event through two sets of eyes. Roy has a firm grasp of the history and culture of his setting but, as related by his brace of protagonists, the novel has an immediacy and freshness that never threatens to bog down his story.
Of course, there are abundant ironies in Roy’s framing of his story. The French build an impregnable fortress with one blind spot they refuse to acknowledge (the same mistake the British will make almost 200 years later at Hong Kong) and that leads to their defeat. Jacques is a decent, liberal-minded young fellow but lacks the actual physical courage to follow through on his good intentions. The capriciousness and lack of political will of the French monarchy will eventually lead to the Revolution that will bloodily bring about the ideals Jacques cherishes.
Two Feathers, who at one point has thrilling one-on-one combat with a bear, is exactly the son Jacques’ father wants, but he is never going to be the son his father will ever likely claim as his own. And the woman he loves will lose him to the debt he owes to what he recognizes as his people: The Metis, whom he explains as “We are of both, and we are neither. We are something new.”
Roy was born and raised in Antigonish, and, at one time, hoped to follow a musical career. After teaching high school on the island of Saipan in Micronesia, he returned to Nova Scotia and began his writing career with Submarine Outlaw, the first in a series of six novels (so far).
Roy, in an autobiographical note, explains his family origins as a French settler and a Maliseet woman. “Now, we have the leisure to look back on them and study, write about them, dramatize them,“ Roy says about his ancestors and their contemporaries, “yet behind the dramas that we create are individuals who really stood here in this place and made a claim upon it. The longer one contemplates this, the more remarkable it becomes.”
Roy’s novel is remarkably entertaining for any reader, and for this summer season would make a great read to take to the beach or bungalow.