Eyewitness – THOMPSON (CSS)

THOMPSON, Margaret. Eyewitness. Vancouver: Ronsdale Press, 2000. 190p. Resenha de: MANDZUK, David; MANDZUK, Jayne. Canadian Social Studies, v.37, n.1, 2002.

Eyewitness by Margaret Thompson is a nicely crafted piece of historical fiction that is sure to appeal to young adolescents and adults alike. It tells the tale of Peter Mackenzie, a young boy who grows up without his parents in Fort St. James during the time of the Fur Trade in what is now British Columbia. In the book, Thompson interweaves a variety of interesting characters such as Sir George Simpson, Carrier Chief Kwah and James Douglas, many of whom actually lived during the time.

In our view, the book’s three major strengths are its rich descriptive passages, its ability to capture what life must have been really like for a child at the time, and its ability to capture both the respect and tension that characterized the relationship between Canada’s native people and the Europeans whose arrival changed the natives’ way of life forever. There are many passages throughout the novel that are rich in description and demonstrate Thompson’s love of language. One of these passages is found on page 70 where the protagonist of the story, Peter, describes the sled dogs and the beauty of a cold, winter’s night:

But on those winter nights so clear and cold that it seemed that the air must splinter and shiver into a million, tinkling shards, when the Northern Lights rippled and swelled across the sky, the dogs would waken and howl, filling the night with song, as if they, too, sensed the great silent chords that I could feel shuddering in my head as the lights swirled majestically overhead.

Another strength of the book is Thompson’s ability to recreate what life must have really been like for a child during the time of the Fur Trade. For instance, we learn what it is like to wake up with a skiff of snow at the foot of your bed, what it is like to eat fish for months on end, and the sheer tedium of waiting out the long Canadian winters. The following passage is particularly effective in this last regard:

There was little traffic between posts once the fish had been stored, the wood cut and the year’s returns packed and hauled away. The Fort settled into its dreamy winter state, the grey buildings huddled in the snow on their little eminence above the frozen lake, smoke from the tiny chimneys standing straight up in the still air, the inhabitants concentrating on keeping warm and whiling away the empty hours (p. 119).

A third strength of the book is Thompson’s ability to capture both the respect and tension between the native people and those of the Hudson’s Bay Company. In fact, Peter realizes how his friend’s people have probably been changed forever when he states that, in a sudden, bleak understanding, I realized how complicated life had become for Cadunda’s people, now that we were there, a different clan, with very different ideas, spreading everywhere and more of us coming all the time (p. 179).

Although we would recommend this book for young readers, we do have a few suggestions for the author and for teachers thinking of using this book with their classes. First, we felt that the cover was neither colourful enough nor eye-catching enough to attract the eyes of young readers who often rely on the title page to attract them to a book. Second, we both felt that a glossary would have helped the reader follow the story by explaining terms such as babiche and capot, words quite specific to Canada and the Fur Trade era. Finally, we believe that the novel might be reduced simply to an adventure story if students read the book without any knowledge of the Fur Trade and how it influenced settlement in Canada.

In general, however, we highly recommend this book for young adolescents and their teachers in the middle grades; in fact, it would be a wonderful complement to a Social Studies unit on the Fur Trade. For those middle years teachers who also integrate Social Studies with Language Arts, we believe that this book would be an excellent companion to Joan Clark’s The Hand of Robin Squires. Both books involve the interaction between white and native cultures, both take place in Canada, and both are jam-packed with action which is certainly an advantage in encouraging young adolescents to read!

David Mandzuk – Ph.D. Faculty of Education. University of Manitoba. Winnipeg, Manitoba.
Jayne Mandzuk – Grade 4 Student. Ryerson School. Winnipeg, Manitoba.

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