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  • Orphans of Empire: Grim desolation—or glorious beginning?


    Amy Reiswig
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    Grant Buday’s vivid imagination breathes life into three fascinating historical characters during the early days of colonial BC.

     

    WET FALL DAYS on Mayne Island are a reminder that nature remains ready to reclaim what we’ve built. Fenceposts rot, driveways erode, and awnings threaten to take flight in the wind. With indoor seating lost to COVID, author Grant Buday and I sit under one such sail-prone awning at Mayne’s Farm Gate Store, hands warmed on coffee cups, bodies dry(ish) in our raingear as we attempt a conversation about his novel Orphans of Empire (Touchwood Editions) over the sound of lunch-time pickups pulling out on wet gravel.

    The book takes us back to the second half of the 19th-century, when the colony of British Columbia was still being developed, and individuals as well as imperial interests struggled to assert and establish themselves in what to them was a new world of possibility. In the push against limits, whether personal or political, we see that “success” is a matter of perspective—and in the margins hums the philosophical question of whether our human cleverness, enterprising ingenuity, and passion can ever truly protect us against the turn of fortune’s wheel and the larger cycles of time.   

    History is a record full of holes. Events and players might be recorded—from particular viewpoints with particular agendas—but so much is unknown. That makes it a rich field of play for the imagination of writers fascinated by the human stories buried within the larger narratives, the lives behind the names. For Buday, the names were Colonel Richard Clement Moody, Frisadie, and Henry Fannin—characters he met some six or seven years ago combing through archives while researching the history of New Brighton on the shores of the Burrard Inlet (for what was supposed to be a non-fiction book in New Star’s Transmontanus series). While Buday grew up in in East Burnaby and Coquitlam, he knew the area well—had spent time swimming in the New Brighton pool or walking along the waterfront—and wanted to tell the story of its founding. But he just couldn’t find enough to write a whole book. He also just couldn’t let it go. 

     

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    Grant Buday, courtesy Touchwood Editions

     

    Moody, Frisadie, and Fannin weren’t at New Brighton in the same years, and so Buday tells their stories in alternating chapters that allow us to see the settlement’s development through different eyes at different times—1858-61, 1865-67, and 1881-86. 

    By choosing to flesh out the characters’ individual relationships to the site, Buday also widens our vision of what settlement is and means—to a military engineer on orders from Governor Douglas to establish a capital city, to an 18-year-old Hawaiian woman trying to surmount racist stereotypes to carve out a business opportunity as a hotelier, and to a young man entranced with the Laird of New Brighton’s daughter and with the links between life and death in magnetism, taxidermy, and the art of embalming. 

    Of course, at the edge of their experience is that of the Indigenous people, who, in a telling narrative decision, remain marginalized as the story of development crashes through their land. As Moody and his son sail past a longhouse, watched with curiosity from shore, Moody observes “the grey-black fumes from the ship’s stack roll down-wind as though an infernal factory spewing lost souls.”

    “The question is: what do you really want?” Buday explains about what imagination can give us that historical fact can’t. “To me it’s something a bit more wide-ranging. I guess it’s voice.” The book is rich in sensory detail and reconstruction of place, from people with missing eyebrows and grey teeth to dogs panting and chickens blinking underneath the houses to the hardwood of a train’s seat-facing “whose crimson grain suggested the ripples on a pool of stirred blood.” 

    Above all, though, Buday is a master of getting into the mind and voice of his subjects. “It’s one of the most exciting things I know to do. You start on a given morning and you don't know where you're going to end up an hour later. You try to embody them, to just start going and see where your hand takes you. Little doors and windows open en route. That process of exploration and discovery is the real fun of it all, the excitement. If it doesn’t have that, then it looks to me like you’re just stacking bricks.”

    Buday therefore leads us into his main characters’ unique, if imagined, personal depths. “The tips are all there,” Buday tells me, “but everything underneath is an invention.” In that sense, Buday is himself a kind of explorer here, pushing through the edges of the historical record into unknown territory. It’s a role in which he excels. Orphans of Empire was a finalist for both the 2021 Roderick Haig-Brown Regional Prize and the City of Victoria Butler Book Prize. And among his 12 books are several others inspired by history, including a reimagining of the last ten days of the Trojan War. 

    With their very different backgrounds and goals, Buday’s three principals in Orphans of Empire are also explorers of a sort. They all must explore their own powers of mind to grapple with the limits imposed upon them by rank, racism, or societal expectation, and they subsequently must push into different kinds of new territory within and without. For instance, after sleeping with her business partner Maxie Michaud, Frisadie feels “as though she’d finally left one Frisadie behind and moved on to inhabit another larger and more significant Frisadie.”

    The late 1800s in the colony of British Columbia was a time of expansion, and the characters’ lives play out against a backdrop of empire-building pervaded by a sense of progress. But despite the times being full of movement and propulsion—the locomotive pushing limits across the land and the balloon lifting people upward—each of the main characters is in some way looking backwards. Moody continues to write letters to his dead father. Frisadie brings with her everywhere a carved pineapple that helps her think of home. Fannin puts lodestones in his taxidermy to try and draw the spirits of the dead back to their bodies. 

    In the end, we see the forward-looking founding of New Brighton rooted in Moody’s backward glance of nostalgic childhood memory. “None were orphans as far as I knew,” Buday tells me, regarding the title’s emphasis. “I just liked the notion that these three disparate individuals were all connected via the British Empire and were all, in their way, lost.”

    Implicit in Buday’s use of multiple perspectives is a lesson about how we, as readers, must resist the limits of any narrow, single-focused interpretation of history. For example, on his interest in embalming and taxidermy, Fannin has a disagreement with his lover. “Corpses,” she says, derisively. He counters: “Life.” On a grander scale, Moody looks at the settlement site “with its congealing mud, heaps of brush, and smoking fires” and knew that “what he saw could as easily be called a grim desolation as a glorious beginning.”

    In that same moment of reflection, Moody recalls stories about the ghosts of Roman legions tramping through houses in England, going “from nowhere to nowhere,” and the book therefore critiques colonialism here in BC and also offers a larger comment on the folly of human endeavour generally. In a conversation between Moody and Governor James Douglas, Buday touches on the destructive power of the progress of time itself: “’But peoples rise and fall and are lost to time and dust,’ added Douglas. ‘Another terrible truth, but a truth nonetheless.’ Moody observed a suitable sobriety and parsed the statement: people plus time equals dust.” 

    For all our human drive to self-determination, there is the constraint of circumstance and the constant turn of fortune’s wheel that now lifts up, now brings down. New Brighton itself starts to be overtaken in importance by nearby Granville, and though the resilient Frisadie whispers the mantra of “One, two, three, you are free; four, five, six, beware of tricks; seven, eight, nine, this life is mine,” it both is and isn’t true. “Change,” Maxie would later tell her: “It is the way of the world.”  

    If change is the way of the world, so is connection, as these characters’ lives intersect and weave together over the course of the book. With its luxurious descriptions, incisive and sensitive character creation, and plain ol’ delightful play with and in language, Orphans of Empire will transport you out of whatever wet and windy day you might be having. But it also, and importantly, enlarges history by turning a lens on the diverse individuals who lived and were lost inside the ‘bigger’ stories. It feels like a bit of a jailbreak, as he busts Moody, Frisadie, Fannin and others—like James and Amelia Douglas, Judge Matthew Baillie Begbie, and American agent provocateur Ned McGowan—out of the archival confines and into our living rooms, bedrooms, cafes, and libraries for a time. In so doing, Buday’s book reminds us that as the cycle rolls on around us, we’re each playing our part in history right now and are all part of each other’s stories.   

    ___

    Buday’s other novels include White Lung (1999, Finalist for the City of Vancouver Book Prize), A Sack of Teeth (2002), Rootbound (2006), Dragonflies (2008) The Delusionist (2014, finalist for the City of Victoria Book Prize and Kobzar Literary Award), and Atomic Road (2018). He has also published the travel memoir Golden Goa as well as a short, sharp chronicle of his move to and impressions of Mayne Island called Stranger on a Strange Island

    Amy Reiswig is a writer and editor living on that same small, strange island. 

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