In this stunning and original novel, John Steffler has recreated a lost time and place, and has given life to an enigmatic figure from Canada’s 18th-century past. Described quietly by historians as “soldier, diarist, entrepreneur,” George Cartwright emerges in Steffler’s tale as a character of overwhelming appetite and ambition. Until this time Cartwright’s greatest legacy has been the place in Labrador named after him and the journal he wrote during his years there, when he lived amongst Native people and ran a successful trading post. Now his legacy becomes our own: a telling portrait of our past; a warning.
In his intriguing first novel, Newfoundland-based poet Steffler re-creates major events in the life of George Cartwright, an actual figure who was an adventurer and soldier instrumental in the settling of Labrador during the second half of the 18th century. Steffler imagines that Cartwright, who died in May 1819, still rides his horse through contemporary England. Moving back and forth in time and point of view between the ghostly Cartwright's journal, the real-life Cartwright's autobiography, a third-person narration, and letters and old diary entries, Steffler recounts his protagonist's event-filled career. In the process, he depicts a world of casual brutality, grinding poverty, ghastly disease and sudden death. Eighteenth-century British institutions are rife with corruption and violence, but Cartwright's spirit is equally appalled by the modern world and remorseful about his role in its birth. Steffler's diction through most of the novel is terse, sometimes oddly flat, yet at times vibrant with imagery. His narrative cross-cutting can make for uneven pacing. However, much of the story is moving, particularly accounts of the death by smallpox of Cartwright's closest friends among the Inuit Eskimos, victims of his ill-advised decision to bring them to England, and the gradual unraveling of his relationship with his common-law wife.