Thursday I went to see Joseph Boyden talk about his new book, his first non-fiction effort, Louis Riel & Gabriel Dumont. I was flying solo, but not because Jean wasn’t interested. Boyden is perhaps Jean’s favorite novelist, and being Métis himself, he’s also interested in the Riel story. But weirdly, Jean was busy listening to another author that night—Kevin Callan, who writes humorous non-fiction about canoeing and other outdoor activities.
I have to admit that one of the main things I was wondering about Boyden is whether he looks as good in person as he does in his author. From my second-row seat, it quickly became apparent that, yes he does. The shock of black hair, the great smile with the gleaming white teeth, the compact body, the cool leaf tatoos on his forearms… It all adds up to someone perfectly fun to spend an hour looking at.
Fortunately, though, he was also quite interesting to listen to. He explained how he’d found it very difficult to get this book completed. Having to stick to facts (instead of the “lies of fiction”), trying to cover the lives of two men in a mere 45,000 words, were huge challenges. It took him about 3 years to complete the book.
Of course, he did learn a lot about the two men. He pointed out that Riel was not fighting just for the rights of the Métis, but of all the settlers on the land the railroad was to come through, whether Native, white, or Métis. And when McDonald sent in the troops, he says it was Riel’s refusal to follow Dumont’s advice and engage in guerilla warfare that doomed them. He was very moved by reading the transcript of Riel’s trial, where Riel was fighting not only the charges against, but also his defense team, who were arguing that he was insane.
During the Q&A, we learned a bit more about Boyden himself. He says his interest in Canadian history likely comes from having an elderly father, born in 1898. (His father died when Boyden was 8.) This set many of us off trying to do that math in our heads… And he thinks that his ability to write from a woman’s perspective (as in Through Black Spruce) was helped by having seven older sisters, who frequently dressed him up as a doll. And he’s currently working on two novels, one a continuation of the Three Mile Road / Through Black Spruce series, and another centered around the Jesuits arrival in Canada.
In general, he came across as quite charming and pretty funny, particularly for one whose books are a little dark.
Afterward, I stood in the line to get my books signed: Through Black Spruce, which I had before, and the Riel and Dumont one that I bought on the day. Fortunately I had something to say other than what seemed to be overly obvious, that being that I’m a fan of his writing. “I think you know my mother,” I said. Because, you see, they’d previously worked together at Northern College in Timmins. It can be a small world.