Books

New World tragedy

A desperate girl takes on a male identity

Susan McClelland December 20 1999
Books

New World tragedy

A desperate girl takes on a male identity

Susan McClelland December 20 1999

New World tragedy

Books

A desperate girl takes on a male identity

Isobel Gunn

By Audrey Thomas Penguin, 230pages, $29.99

On Dec. 29, 1807, Alexander Henry, chief factor at a fur trading post in what is now southern Manitoba, described in his journal the remarkable birth of a son to a young Scottish girl named Isobel Gunn. Until the pain of labour forced her to reveal herself, Isobel had successfully disguised herself as a man for a year and a half. Henry’s journal entry, as well as birth and death certificates, form the factual basis for West Coast author Audrey Thomas’s captivating and tragic new novel.

Thomas begins her tale on one of the Orkney Islands. Narrator Magnus Inkster, a fellow islander chronicles Isobel’s grim life. Badly scarred by smallpox and unlikely to marry, young Isobel seems doomed to a future of caring for

her alcoholic father. But she begins to plan an escape when she hears sailor John Scarth’s fantastic tales of the time he spent on Hudson Bay. Keeping to herself and dressed in the bulky clothing worn against the cold in winter and stinging insects in summer, she escapes discovery by all except Scarth. He recognizes her and uses his knowledge of her secret to repeatedly rape her.

Forcibly separated from her son when he is only 2, she spends the rest of her long life vainly trying to see him again. Isobel’s heartbreaking story drives Inkster, a clergyman, to grapple with concepts of predestination, heaven and God. His ruminations give the book plenty of thematic heft. But it is the courageous Isobel herself who lingers in the reader’s imagination.

Susan McClelland