Originally published in 1935, Frederick Niven's The Flying Years tells the history of Western Canada from the 1850s to the 1920s as witnessed by Angus Munro, a young Scot forced to emigrate to Canada when his family is evicted from their farm. Working in the isolated setting of Rocky Mountain House, Angus secretly marries a Cree woman, who dies in a measles epidemic while he is on an extended business trip. The discovery, fourteen years later, that his wife had given birth to a boy who was adopted by another Cree family and raised to be 'all Indian' confirms Angus's sympathies toward Aboriginal peoples, and he eventually becomes the Indian Agent on the reserve where his secret son lives. Angus's ongoing negotiation of both the literal and symbolic roles of 'White Father' takes place within the context of questions about race and nation, assimilation and difference, and the future of the Canadian West. Against a background of resource exploitation and western development, the novel queries the place of Aboriginal peoples in this new nation and suggests that progress brings with it a cost. Alison Calder's afterword examines the novel's depiction of the paternalistic relationship between the Canadian government and Aboriginal peoples in Western Canada, and situates the novel in terms of contemporary discussions about race and biology.
Born in Chile and raised in Scotland, Frederick Niven (1878-1944) travelled in British Columbia as a young adult and continued writing about Western Canada upon his return to Scotland. In 1920 he returned to Canada, settling permanently outside Nelson, BC. He was the author of over twenty novels.
Memory, as the years slipped past, always served Angus Munro with Loch Brendan through a web of yammering gulls, but his mother remembered it through a mist of tears.
There had come to her no omen that the Munros were to leave there. An omen would have hinted the Hand of God in it, however strangely, whereas there seemed to be only the callousness and rapacity of man. Not that any supernatural warning was needed in face of the bitter evidences, but her folk were prone to omens. Her grandmother, as she often told, when recounting the stories of the land, had been waked one night in the '45 by her brother who was, as they said, out. She had sat up in bed, staring at him in the dusk of the kitchen. The smouldering seed of the fire had blazed to a sudden puff of air-and he it was, without doubt, in that flicker of light. He shook his head to her, forlorn-like, as in a sign that something had miscarried, and then was gone. "So you see," Angus's mother would say, "my granny was fully prepared when the news came that her brother was dead on Culloden Field."
As for herself, when the news came that Angus's brother, Robin, had been drowned in the Sound, she was prepared. She took it as his father did not. Daniel Munro seemed to lose his reason for a while, marching to and fro like a soldier on sentry-go, back and forth. At each sudden advance he appeared to be going for help; then he would halt, aware that there was no help, stand dazed a moment, wheel, and stride off again-back and forth. But Mrs. Munro spoke slowly:
"That was the death-candles burning over the Sound last night," said she. "I should never have let him go this day. I was warned."
She was intimate with ghosts. Shadows, by the way, was the word for them among another folk in another land to which they were all going-the father grimly, the mother in tears, the lad with a sense of adventuring.
They were no great readers in Brendan in those days, though in the winter great story-tellers, while sleet scoured the window and night gave a hollow moan in the chimney, with narratives of the old days, myth and truth: of King Hakon; of the Norse woman with the flame-coloured hair; of Cromwell's soldiers that bided in Inverness after the wars and, surrounded there by the Gaelic speech, kept pure amongst themselves their own tongue and passed on to their bairns the fine language of their time, so that, in after years, Sassenach philologists would comment on how beautiful was the English the folk of Inverness spoke; of Prince Charles Stuart; of Cluny in his "cage" on Ben Alder when it was supposed by most that he was long since in France; of the smoking out of the Macdonalds in the cave of Sciur; of the pixies and the kelpies.
Angus's father saw the change coming and was for the boy conning his book. The English they had was thus book-English, their natural speech being the Gaelic. Even Mrs. Munro learnt to speak it-and with the prettiest lilt. But the point here is that between his mother's old stories and the books that his father got for him, and a bent he had for knowing what was happening on the hills and the lochs and the sea-a sort of living with the weather-the boy (sixteen then) had his own kind of private excitement and happiness in life. He had his own gossip too. He would sooner hear of a whiskered seal flapping on to the Black Rocks with gruff bark like an old man's cough, than any yatter of human follies and failings.
The eviction at Brendan was quieter than some. The Munros expected it. Daniel possessed a booklet-Information for Emigrants to British North America. PUBLISHED BY AUTHORITY (that on the title-page gave them deep confidence in it), Price Sixpence-and he and Angus assuredly conned it, reading all its information on New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward's Island, on Eastern (Lower) Canada, on Western (Upper) Canada, and were a little troubled that the Western Canada it touched upon was not the west to which they were going. They were going even beyond "Western (Upper) Canada." They made themselves acquainted, hopefully, with the value out there of the sovereign and the guinea, and discovered what an American Eagle was worth, a Spanish minted doubloon, a Spanish milled dollar, and what was a pistareen. A great mixture of coins there seemed to be in the Canadas, from the French five-franc piece to the Mexican dollar. They learnt that there were Emigrant Sheds at the landing-place for those who could not "incur the expense of lodging," in which they could sleep a night if necessary, and they made computation of how much food they should cook in preparation for their further journey into that west beyond the tabulated west of the booklet. It was cheering to note that the further one went the higher were the wages paid for labour.
Folk ate well in the Canadas by all accounts, never there, as in Scotland, on the edge of starvation. A man could kill his deer without by your leave of any, and there were crops other than of poor oats and potatoes. There was even a sugar tree. Sugar from a tree! Now, there was a land for you! Think on it! Yes, there was a lot of talk of "the Canadas" before they were indeed started on their way thither.
Their neighbours, the Grants (Jessie Grant was the lass of Angus's calf-love), were also leaving Brendan, but not for the Canadas. There were but Jessie and her mother, the father having been drowned in the boat accident that took Robin Munro. They were going to Glasgow to live with Mrs. Grant's sister, married to an ex-soldier, Cameron by name, a big-hearted man who had set up as a smith, was doing fine there, and had offered, himself, to look after them.
The events of the Highlands and the isles of that period put a kind of dolour into even the young, ageing them somewhat, gave them, too soon, a sense of distrust in Life. Happiness and trouble were blent in their eyes and the elders seemed always to be admonishing them in this fashion: "There's no one can go courting these days."
"There's no lad can plight troth with a lass these days."
Nevertheless, there they were-Jessie and Angus-in the silver-green shade of a birch-wood by Loch Brendan, betwixt Brendan and the point, on the morning of the day of departure. To each the proximity of the other was a rare, blessed, mysterious and secret anodyne for the public woe that they could not escape.
"If I make a way in the Canadas-" Angus began.
Jessie interrupted him.
"I'm sure of myself but I'm not sure of you," she said.
What, exactly, did she mean? What was it in him, he wondered, that she was not sure of?
"Would you wait for me?" he asked her.
"I'll not say yes," she answered, "because-" she left the rest in air.
"Because of what, Jessie?" He repeated her name, urgently: "Jessie, Jessie . . ."
She sighed his name for the only reply, held her face up to him. As he bent kissing her she turned it away in some young distress, then suddenly drew him close, responding to his caresses. Next moment she abruptly disengaged herself, shook her head, her cheeks pallid.
"No promises!" she implored. "I'm sure of myself but I'm not sure of you. There's mother calling."
She pressed a hand against his breast and ran from him as though she were running also, in agitation, in deep distress, from herself. At the bend of the road she halted and looked round. There they stood looking one to the other-for an eternity, it seemed; then she turned and was gone from sight and he walked home by the loch-side, the incoming Atlantic tide toying with the seaweed fringe of Scotland along the rocks.
By the door stood a group of men, talking. It was the old talk (repetitive as that of the young lovers on their uncertainties), talk upon the plight of the people in that grandly beautiful land that the Munros were leaving.
"Yes, that is so. Join the army! Join the army!" one was saying to Daniel. "That's all for some of them."
"It's a poor consolation for a lad," he replied, "sticking his bayonet into the belly of a Rooshian, to imagine that he is fighting for his own and stabbing into his real enemies, the men who have put him and his out of house and home. The army! It might be ordered against the French next, instead of to help the Turks against the Rooshians, for all we know, as it was when I was a lad. And the French were good friends to the Scots in the '45."
The old talk, the old talk. Another spoke.
"They say it's not to make room for the deer that we must go," he said. "They say that never was any thrust out to make room for deer for them to shoot. Quibbles! Quibbles! To make room for sheep it is-and then the sheep make room for the deer. They'll bring up that lie if ever we get the Commission of Inquiry that some talk of."
"Yes, and it's been going on since the '45," declared Munro. "It was different, though, when it was the Sassenach that came with fire and sword. When a man's foes shall be they of his own household it is bitter!"
Angus sidled past them into the house. Just then, from one of the further cottages up near the bracken and the heather (that soon would encroach everywhere there), came the...