Most of the characters in the novel are grappling with the consequences of cultural encounters and the changes brought about by the interactions between Europeans and Indigenous peoples, including beliefs, technologies, and diseases carried from Europe. With novels being so intimate, how did you approach representing the sensibilities of the remote time and different cultures?
The overarching presence in the novel is the land. For the most part, the story takes place in a wilderness several hundred miles from the nearest European settlement. And Quebec was still a struggling settlement, not a town, in 1634.
For the Wendat and the Iroquois, of course, that wilderness was home. Trying to imagine their relationship to the land, or really the spiritual connection to nature and its cycles and forces, became central for me to establish, because all the Western characters are affected by the power and the living presence of the land. I mention in the afterword that I tried to give expression to Wendat spirituality with the deepest respect, however much I may have missed a true understanding and the details.
But the focus of my story was Brûlé, who lived out there for decades and must have embraced the Wendat culture deeply. So I had to create his relationship with this wilderness largely through the beliefs of his adopted people.
The wilderness strips the French characters of artifice, each in their own way. But the effects of the French were already tearing the fabric of the Wendat culture. Imagine making and using bone utensils all your life and then having a steel knife, or axe, or needle in your hand for the first time, and bolts of coloured cloth, and large metal kettles, or a musket. They had to have them. The disease came a little later.
As you’ve mentioned, the land itself is a key figure in your novel, including with respect to the characters’ different visions for and relationships with the land. In what sense are you suggesting the land is “apart,” and from what?
That is an interesting question, and I think it pivots on the idea that the wilderness offered a kind of paradise to Brûlé. At least you get a sense that that is what Brûlé has found out there. So the “apart” refers to leaving behind the terrible conflicts he witnessed as a boy in France, and leaving European culture in general, for the different values of an Indigenous life. It might not suit some people, but it certainly seems to have suited him, because he never chose to come back to Western civilization.