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An Epic Canadian Life - an Editorial Review of "The Journal of John McLeod"

Book Blurb: Coming soon!

Book Buy Link: Coming soon!

Author Bio: Roger F. Fisher - coming soon!

Editorial Review:

''The Journal of John Mcleod'' is a lyrical and lengthy account of one man and an epic life hard lived in the far reaches of Canada at the very beginning of the nineteenth century.; an account from the year 1800 to I830. By turns, this book is epic in scope, lyrical in its memories and experiences, tragic and intensely moving. The work, which we are informed is a complete work of fiction, is the account of the adventurous and packed life of John Mcleod, a native of Vermont in the infant United State of America as compiled from his own journal and lengthy conversations recorded and noted by his faithful life long friend, Thomas O'Leary and published by him after Mcleod's death.

At the very beginning of the century John is a tall and gangly young man of twenty one. The son of a successful and prosperous Boston banker with two high achieving brothers, John is a bookish and academically minded boy with a thirst for excitement and marked by a spectacularly broken nose [the result of a childhood accident] that had been badly set. He is about to leave for Montreal, a short coach journey, and a career to which he will devote most of his life; for John is set for a seven year contract with the NorWest Company and a career in the fur industry. With him he carries his aunt's Bible, a book of Greek epigrams from his doting Headmaster [for John is a gifted and high achieving student], his grandfather's fine gold watch and a compass from his friend Thomas O'Leary. He is also the owner of a fine blank journal - a gift from his sister - in which he is to relate his life and experiences, delivered and noted with a meticulous precision and movingly recounted with great charm. A short time into the first stage of his career as a clerk at the Company he is presented with a fine Dolland telescope, the gift of Sir Simon Mackenzie, the chief Director of the Company to a promising son of a leading shareholder, John's father. Captain Tyler, a former Sea Captain, bids him to look at the sky just off the upper shoulder of Orion. John can see only darkness. The Captain tells him that he once saw something there, ''God's Universe is a whole lot bigger than all them sky watchers say,'' he tells him. John, already a keen amateur astronomer, has been set off on a lifetime's study and in search of a mystery that he will finally discover at the very end of his life. John's 'Grand Adventure', as he calls it, is not destined to be confined to cataloguing trade items and searching for irregularities in the ledgers of a Montreal warehouse or of exploring Montreal with his new friend, the musically gifted Frederick from Vienna. The combination of inadvertently offending the daughter of one Chief Director and of incurring the wrath of the other through an injudiciously submitted report of theft and malfeasance leads John, who is ''as smart as a whip, but dumb as a brick'' to being assigned 'up country' to the tender mercies of a fearsome man in a 'Department' called McGreggor who runs his part of the Company as an Emperor. In the opinion of everyone this is somewhat akin to sailing to meet the figure of Kurz in Conrad's 'Heart of darkness'. In the event, the man more than lives up to his reputation. A fight before departure with an old enemy from the Depot leaves John with a fearsome scar across his face to add to his broken nose and an old spinal injury worsened by the privations of lengthy canoe journeys. Thus, for John, begins a life time with the solace and short comings of Laudanum! It is in the course of this lengthy and difficult journey up-country to 'Fort McGreggor' that he makes the acquaintance of a remarkable man called Batiste, and, later, his wife Marie. They will always be true and steady friends to him and who disappear somewhat mysteriously from time to time on expeditions for their own purposes. John is impressed from the very start by the calibre of the remarkable canoeists, the 'Voyageurs', struck by their endurance and sheer toughness - and their extraordinary musical abilities:

''John watched the silent, resolute motion of the men, paddling without cease, their every ounce and share of strength and will poured into every stroke. To John, it seemed these were not thirty men in three boats, but rather one living creature, moving relentlessly forward, one body, with one pulse.''

The Canada of the beginnings of the nineteenth century is a tough and brutal land populated by tough and brutal men, as John's journal continues to laconically relate; interspersed as it is with moments of deep introspection and meditation and accounts of the sheer beauty of the land he travels through. These are, all of them, remarkable descriptions of the vast place of the time, and of the rich variety - the heroes and villains - of the people he encounters; McGreggor and his equally evil and villainous henchman John Haldeman are but two cases in point. McGreggor sends him off on an ultimately doomed expedition to survey and make a map of the seriously deranged megalomaniac's 'Empire' of 'McGreggorland' in the company of the depraved and dissolute Philip Turnbull, a truly gifted surveyor and mapmaker, who teaches his new map making assistant how to calculate the latitude and longitude and their exact position in this vast wilderness before defecting to the rival Hudson Bay Company. In a book of this size and scope it is beyond the task of a literary review [or the abilities of the individual reviewer] to note the sheer length and breadth of the adventures and travails of John Mcleod, that is best reserved for the delight of the reader of this fine book. There is much tragedy, sombrely recounted, further long, arduous and perilous journeys to be made, along with asides on the various evils of trading spirits for fur and the disasterous effects of alcohol upon the Indian tribes involved. There are savage encounters and massacres, brutal European traders and colonists, equally brutal winters, and the violent reactions of Indians, the horror of epidemics and starvation, the disovery of gold and of strange luminescent minerals and remarkable people encountered along the way, such as the mystical inoculator against the deadly smallpox, Lennon, who also provides a new remedy for his continued severe backpain, opium; until he is cured by an ancient Medicine Woman. His ear is shot off by a drunken and vengeful Indian, thus completing the total ruin of his features! The ''Journal of John Macleod'' is thus packed with incidents, people and events. So, John Mcleod traverses the wilderness, noting in his increasingly battered journal the development of his own wisdom and awareness. A severely injured wolf is brought back to health and tamed, becoming a devoted and faithful companion to Mcleod and the young family of beloved wife and children he acquires in the course of his journeys. He has a devoted wife and companion, Celeste, or 'Pony' as she is more commonly known, whom he gains through the successful prediction of a solar eclipse to an entire tribe of fearful people. As he grows in seniority, reputation and ability and his years of service to a Company he fundamentally despises accrue, he is awarded his own post to govern and, with pride, sees it grow prosperous; before being separated from his family and sent once more on yet another doomed expedition. With a typical piety and knack for capturing the moment, Mcleod faithfully notes it all down in his journal. On one occasion he surveys the scene and the cultivated farm land around his settlement that he has himself brought into being:

''Walking today in this glorious sunshine amidst these waving fields of golden wheat I felt the hand of God Himself touching my very soul, forgiving my sins, reviving again my hope that this place can be transformed into a Provision Post where we can harvest God's glorious bounty and send healthy sustenance throughout the Interior and no longer depend upon the evil trade in spirit, which is consuming the soul of our Enterprise.....but here, in the glory of these fields of gold and in the green shoots and rich black soil of our gardens, only here do I feel God's grace and blessing upon this land......''

Occasionally, conversely, poor John Mcleod, the eternal traveller, is plunged into the depths of despair by his privations and experiences:

''My only relief from this Hell is my Laudanum, of which the red powder to me is no longer bitter but rather Manna from Heaven. When some relief comes, I search my Bible and as usual I turn to Job who kept his Faith in God to keep such Faith in a world that has turned against me. This must be God's great Test of my Fortune and I must endure. O that I were warm and safe in the arms of my beloved wife and family. O that this terrible ordeal would end......''

Frequently, and most eloquently, John Mcleod turns to the beauty and sheer magnificence of his surroundings and resorts to what is almost poetry in his descriptions, such as this observation of the phenomena of 'The Northern Lights' as he pursues his determination to plot the course of the stars above. The reader can picture him huddled, shivering in his bearskin before a small fire with his precious Dolland telescope in the bone chilling cold:

.....''Oft have I watched Jupiter's moons turn from light to dark in their perfect heavenly clockwork. Most amazing to me, however, is the almost nightly display of the Northern LIghts where the whole Heavens come alive in a spectacular display of ephemeral colors and shapes. Here I feel at the very centre for in every direction the tremulous light shimmers and glows from horizon to horizon in immense sheets of colored light, the arcs and spirals and shapes without names swirl and streak across the sky. There is a huge stillness for perhaps two minutes and I hear dogs howling with fear, then the Phantasmal Dance begins anew.....I am reminded yet again that the Indians call this ghostly sight the Dance of the Dead......''

Finally, a much battered John Mcleod is able to return to the place of his birth with his family, a much experienced and worldly wise traveller. He is also extremely rich as a result of all his heroic labours on behalf of the NorWest Company and is in fact now the third richest man in Vermont. There are still further ordeals and great personal tragedies yet to be faced, as well as a continuing development of his own personal and spiritual awareness. There is a great new cause for him to embrace with a further resurgence of his youthful energy and enthusiasm. There are joyful reunions and welcome news of old friends, and a final spectacular discovery to be made. The faithful reader who has accompanied him on this very long and exhausting journey may, like him, conclude with a sense of gratification and accomplishment.


“The Journal of John McLeod” by Roger F. Fisher receives 4.5 stars from The Historical Fiction Company


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