Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Nine Lives of Charlotte Taylor

The title: The Nine Lives of Charlotte Taylor
The author: Sally Armstrong
Publication: Vintage Canada, 2007
Got it from: SC, past Christmas

Charlotte Taylor was an actual historical figure - the author's great-great grandmother, if I remember correctly, and the first woman settler on the Miramichi. Charlotte led an extraordinary life. In 1775, at the age of twenty, she ran away from her home in England with her secret lover, her family's black butler. As the book opens, Charlotte and her man are enduring a hellish trip across the Atlantic Ocean. They arrive in Jamaica without any money or connections, and Charlotte's lover soon dies of disease. Charlotte is now three months pregnant.

This is the beginning of her incredible story, some of which is documented fact, some educated guesses on the part of the author. The first half of the book moves along at a nice pace. With the kindness of a man named Commodore Walker, Charlotte is taken to northern New Brunswick, an untapped wilderness at that time. She befriends the local Micmac tribe and even lives among them for awhile when she delivers her baby. She falls in love with a Native man, and their unspoken love becomes the thread that binds the rest of the story together, right up until Charlotte's death at the age of 85.

Charlotte's unwavering resilience is inspiring. Despite being married three times (and only once to a man I would consider "nice"), she soldiers on like the brave pioneer women of my old history textbooks. She pops out at least ten children. I can't remember the exact number, because it was starting to get a little ridiculous toward the end. She uses knowledge from the Natives to keep her family well-fed and healthy. She fights off rebels coming upriver from America during the Revolution. She scraps with neighbours over the ownership of her land, even spending ten days walking down the river to petition the government in Fredericton. That's right, I said on the river. It was frozen.

I am in awe of just how much research Sally Armstrong must have done to make this book happen. There are so few books written about this place, this time period. I have to say, being from New Brunswick, that this book held a definite appeal to me. Even though I'm about two centuries away, I could still see the recognizable New Brunswick features in my head.

It's too bad the ending felt a little rushed. I know it can't be easy to fit in everything from such an amazing life, but I started to get confused over all of Charlotte's children, in-laws and grandchildren when they started appearing lightening fast at the end. I suppose when one has something like 70 grandchildren, even Charlotte herself would have a hard time keeping them straight. Her oldest daughter alone had 16 children. All I can say is thank heavens for modern-day birth control.

A definite recommended read. Don't let "boring New Brunswick" put you off. It's better than your eighth grade social studies class and more interesting than many historical novels I've read.

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