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Fiction Historical

A Small Compass

by (author) Cinda Gault

Grey Goose Press Inc.
Initial publish date
Nov 2023
Historical, Colonial & 19th Century
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Nov 2023
    List Price

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In 1806, Isobel Gunn was staring down the inevitability of a spinster's farm life in the Orkney Islands, Scotland, often referred to as the Island of Women. At the same time, across the ocean in Maskinongé, Quebec, Marie-Anne Gaboury is facing the prospect that her dashing new coureur de bois husband will leave her a fur trade widow when he returns west to the wilderness. Both women launch on perilous voyages that will change them forever and transform them into legends. A Small Compass is the story of the first two non-indigenous women to venture into the western Canadian wilderness. They meet and must help each other battle what they do and don't know to defend all they love.

In 1806, two strangers on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean set out on different journeys that landed them fighting for their lives together in the Canadian wilderness. Based on a true story, the first two white women to venture into the Canadian northwest give birth within a week of each other and must combine forces to battle the dangers of the wilderness to defend all they love.

About the author

Cinda Gault holds a PhD in Canadian national identity issues in women’s writing of the 1960s and 1970s. She teaches and writes about Canadian literature, and lives in Toronto, Ontario.

Cinda Gault's profile page

Excerpt: A Small Compass (by (author) Cinda Gault)

Five girls between twenty-two and forty-one, all at home and not one married. No hope for a life of their own. The only son, her brother George, was the one who could waltz off to Hudson Bay.

On a night like this, Orkney girls pulled covers up to their necks to dream about ships foundering off the coast, their men pitched to thrash about in a furious sea. Then, one of them might wash up motionless on a freshened beach by morning. He would open his eyes to the concerned face hovering above him, struck by love. It had happened once or twice, and much was made of it. But the truth was that, should a hundred soggy bachelors be cast up by the sea, they would have their pick of a long line of beauties before getting to a woman built like Isobel.

She didn't mind how she looked. There was simply no point in pretending she would be anyone's first or second, or third choice, especially since all the young men were gone. She had a pleasant smile, as most people did, that was no more memorable than the rest of her ordinary face. She had no big eyes capable of tempting a man into their depths. Her cheeks were ruddy, not rosy. Her neck was stout, not elegant. Able to lift what her father could not, she was the one sought out when others could not manage what needed to be chopped or shovelled or carried. When one did a man's work, there was no need for a pretty face.

But she did mind when her brother George would say: “Ach, Isobel, women aren’t built for adventuring. Your lot is here minding the sheep. It's men who are meant to paddle pelts down the rivers of Rupert's Land.”

He said it to goad her, she knew. And she was always willing to give him the expected retort:

"You’ve become a personal messenger for the Almighty now, have you, George? Did you meet Him over there in Hudson Bay?”

She was careful never to reveal how close his spears came to the soft spot in her armour. He was right that God had tilted the table. With no young men left here, she would never have a family of her own. Nor could she go to town to be a cabinet maker, butcher, innkeeper, fisherman, or shipbuilder. She couldn't go farther afield to be a coal miner, soldier, or labourer in Hudson Bay. "What's wrong with minding sheep, Isobel?" her sisters would say, upholders of the natural order and traitors.

She wasn't put off farming by the cold winds or long damp hours of standing, the aching back from hauling kelp or the fetid smells of manure. None of that bothered her. And there was nothing particularly wrong with kneeling so that others might climb on her shoulders, nor sacrificing her own experience of the world to settle for stories from others, nor minding someone else's hearth with no hope of having her own. Nothing was wrong with it, so long as she was content to have nothing for herself. The doors of this prison could only stay closed if locked from the inside, and that was why George's claim pained her. The women around her didn't go adventuring because they didn't seem to want to go. What was wrong with her, then?

It was as if he had stepped into the school room directly from his canoe, bringing with him the smell of wood smoke and the promise of a night sky loaded with stars. His deerskin jacket fringed with horsehair was draped over broad shoulders and topped by a wool cape. He wore an otter cap pushed to one side of his head. Hair down to his shoulders, he did not in the least resemble a scrubbed farm boy.

He bowed, oddly gentlemanly, and paused before speaking. His voice was as smooth as a deeply running river. As he spoke, he walked slowly down the aisle between the benches with footsteps silent as a fox. He told of a fellow engagé near Pembina who had been carried off by a bear, her two cubs trailing behind. Roused by the man's terrified screams, his companions had raced from camp to give chase, prodding the bear with branches, afraid to shoot lest they accidentally kill their friend. The man shrieked for them to shoot, that he would rather be shot than eaten alive. When they finally convinced the bear to relinquish her prey, their friend's face had been ripped to the point that his nose and eyes were gone. Still alive, he eventually healed and, to this day, was employed at jobs around the post. "To be fair," Jean-Baptiste said, "in case any of you think bears are monsters capable of only destruction and evil, there is a man I know well, Alexander Henry the Younger, master of the North West Company outpost at Pembina, who raised up a bear cub into a pet. Today, when you enter the front gates of his palisade, the first friendly face you meet is this bear shuffling toward you for an enthusiastic embrace. I have seen it with my own eyes, smelled him with my own nose, and embraced that bear myself. But, unfortunately, he smelled a lot like a bear."

The other grave danger lurking in the wilderness came from Indian attacks. Marie-Anne knew about them, not from her safe Québec village hugging the St. Lawrence River but from Père Vinet’s books. Jean-Baptiste identified the warring Dakota Sioux as the source of trouble on the plains.

"They roam looking for anyone, white, Ojibwe, Assiniboine, or Cree, who might be friendly to Frenchmen. To the Sioux, Indians who cooperate with the French are a bad omen, responsible for chasing the beaver out as far as the prairie, where they have never been before and do not belong. Beavers have ventured beyond where they used to go, but the Frenchmen are not to blame. Maybe no one understood that the beaver are also adventurers.

"When roving parties of Sioux happen upon small bands in helpless circumstances, examples are made of their bodies. I will refrain from describing their desecrations in detail as a gesture of respect for your stomachs and their souls."

When he bowed to Père Vinet, Marie-Anne knew the priest was thinking about the same stories of the Jesuits that she was.

Gérald Théorêt from a neighbouring farm asked why Jean-Baptiste would choose to live in such dangerous circumstances.

"You are right; there is danger, and there is a higher chance to starve as a hunter than as a farmer. The attraction of life out there is that I am a freeman. My combat involves bison, deer, beaver, marten, and other animals for meat and pelts. When I succeed, I eat; when I fail, I am hungry. I am responsible for my own destiny."

"Why have you come back?"

Someone shushed the questioner for being too forthright.

He laughed. "I have come in search of barley and buckwheat so I can eat pancakes. Of course, bison is the best meat in the world, but I have been dreaming about pancakes and our maple syrup for seven years."

Some of the girls called out that they would make him pancakes, and the crowd laughed. Marie-Anne smiled but did not call out, although he was standing only a few feet away. He was close enough for her to see details of the mitasse strapped around each of his shins as protection from the snow and his moccasins with blue and yellow porcupine quills affixed with red beads. She wondered who might have sewn those adornments.

Abruptly, Jean-Baptiste swung around and walked in her direction. Then, he seemed to see her for the first time, as though he knew her and was surprised to see her here. She assumed that he remembered something or was perhaps formulating his next story. But, as time stretched uncomfortably, it became apparent he had been struck dumb.

He stared at her in increasingly uncomfortable silence. The room watched, holding its breath, somewhat confused by his reaction. Finally, he bent down on one knee in front of her.

“What is your name?” he whispered.

No one squirmed, laughed, or prodded him to continue his story. Entranced, they watched.