Submitted by Dave Zink, Steilacoom.
Where the Ghost Horse Runs (Ballantine Books, 1991), is the conclusion of Alfred Silver’s Red River trilogy. Silver, a Canadian novelist and playwright, grew up in the Canadian Prairies.
The trilogy tells the story of the Métis Nation, early Winnipeg and Portage la Prairie, Manitoba, and the vision and adventures of Cuthbert Grant: the “Chief of all the Half-breeds”, and his wife, Marie McGillis. Throughout this trilogy, Silver displays a knack for realistic combat narrative , and humorous turns of phrase.
The first third of this trilogy is titled Red River Story; the second is Lord of the Plains, which gets more into the “Northwest Rebellion”. If you enjoy factual Canadian historical fiction, you’ll love this book. The people in this story all lived.
The Métis are the true native peoples of Canada, northern Minnesota, the Dakotas, and Montana. Although their arrival was separated by thousands of years, “Indians” and Europeans were immigrants to the Americas. The intermarriage of the two peoples produced a new nation, not from Asia or Europe, but who sprang forth in northern North America and produced a people of hybrid vitality.
The Métis can be traced back to a time about nine months after the first white man set foot in Canada. This New Nation has a rich history, which is the thread tying Silver’s Red River trilogy together.
In chapter 17, Silver describes the complex of the major forces and players in the Red River colony in Cuthbert Grant’s words:
“To get what you want, you start with finding out what the people around you want. For instance, the bishop wishes the bulk of his parishioners didn’t scatter across the prairie for months and years at a time and wander back just as pagan as they were before he baptized them. The Kildonan people [Scottish settlers] want to raise their crops and their families without fear that the Sioux or the Assiniboine will fight a war against the Saulteux in their backyards. Most Métis just want to continue going out to hunt buffalo without fear of the Sioux or winter famine. The [Hudson Bay] Company wants to keep on doing business without any disturbances to the orderly flow of profits.”
In chapter 21, there’s an account of what childbirth was like back in the early 19th century. (Not having undergone the birthing experience personally, I’ll leave it to mothers to fact-check these details.)
Some interesting ethnobotany (the study of how people use plants) is scattered through the book. On page 171 is an account of how Native Americans and the Métis used Cattails (Typha latifolia), a common plant found in wetlands.
“Marie went to work on two old pemmican sacks of uprooted cattails that Pirriche had brought over. The roots had to be peeled and set on the hearth to fry. When it came time to use them, they could be cooked as a vegetable or pounded into fibers that made a kind of flour. The downy top spikes [male flowers] were shredded into a bag to use for caulking walls or for stuffing winter moccasins or for tinder.”
Pemmican is a mixture of dried meat, tallow and dried berries that can be stored for a long time and is used as a nutritious food. It was an important part of indigenous cuisine in certain parts of North America—helped many survive through long winters—and still used today as an easy-to-pack trail snack.
Some words of wisdom in this book that stood out to me:
During a blizzard, Grant asks a Kildonan woman why she rescued some Métis that had been caught out in a blizzard, she answers,
“If we stop to worry whether the hand that is waving out of a snowdrift is white or brown, or whether the hand that takes hold of it is the same color as yours, in a short while there are not going to be any hands left. Now, drink your soup.”
Silver often waxes poetic when he describes the way of life of the Métis. One example of many: “Marie entwined herself in the things that mattered–the garden performing it’s alchemy of turning sun and earth and rain into fresh food for her family, the hummingbirds blazing and buzzing through the morning dew, the cows lowing their way back to their milking stalls at dusk… The wild roses were painting the prairie pink.”
You may want to have a French-English dictionary handy while you’re reading this. Not really necessary, but it’ll add to your enjoyment of this captivating book.