The Chief Factor’s Daughter
The Man Game
November 4, 2013
Review By Mark Diotte
At first glance, Lee Henderson’s The Man Game and Vanessa Winn’s The Chief Factor’s Daughter could not be more different. While Henderson’s novel revolves around predominantly violent and obscene loggers in 1886 Vancouver, Winn’s novel, at just over half the length of Henderson’s, revolves around the five “still-at-home” daughters of Chief Factor John Work and their attempts to find marriage and happiness in 1858 Fort Victoria. Each of these novels, however, makes an important contribution to the understanding of BC history on the one hand and to the writing of historical fiction on the other.
Winner of the 2009 Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, The Man Game demonstrates a dialogue that has an uncanny dramatic, or stage, quality to it, while the omniscient description, especially that of landscape, has a poetic, alliterative quality. The novel is split into two intertwined narratives. The dominant narrative is that of 1886, the story of feuding loggers and of Samuel and Molly Erwagen. It is Molly who drives the narrative by developing the Man Game, a form of entertainment that is, in the words of Henderson, a “hybridization of sport, theatre and Mixed Martial Arts” as well as ballroom dance. The contemporary narrative follows the encounter of Kat and his unrequited love interest Minna with Silas and Ken, devotees of the Man Game, the latter of whom is a descendant of the Erwagens. The Kat and Minna plot consumes little space in the novel, and, at times, I wished that these characters had been given the strength and development of those in the historical narrative.
The strength and success of the novel, in my opinion, comes from the incorporation of Chinook Jargon – a trade language of the period – and an unflinching vision of 1886 Vancouver. While the book is populated by historical figures such as Joe Fortes and R.H. Alexander, it is the race conflicts of 1887 and 1907 as well as the rampant, unwavering racism of the characters and general society that create the most significant impact. By confronting the linguistic, violent, racist, and even entertaining realities of a particular period of Vancouver’s history, Henderson registers a frustration with Canadian historical fiction and effectively challenges how history is told, interpreted, and written.
I recently had the pleasure of meeting and listening to Lee Henderson at the University of British Columbia when he spoke about his novel as a part of the Robson Reading Series. What I appreciated most about the event was the passion and excitement Henderson so clearly expressed for his work – a passion and excitement that fills his novel.
In the Spring 2010 edition of BC BookWorld, Joan Givner in “Shades of Jane” compares The Chief Factor’s Daughter to Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. In terms of tone and style, I agree completely. The novel is populated by historical figures such as Lieutenant Charles William Wilson, Governor James Douglas, and the Work family itself. Told through Margaret Work, a “spinster of nearly 24” (4), Winn’s novel focuses on the daughters of the English gentry and their dependence on marriage to attain social position and privilege – except, in contrast to Austen’s narratives, the English gentry has been replaced by the Irishman John Work, who has married “the daughter of a [First Nations] chief” à la façon du pays, and London has been replaced by Fort Victoria.
What impresses me most about Winn’s novel is how she uses the characters of Margaret Work and her sisters to unobtrusively foreground the injustices they faced in terms of race, class, and gender. The family favourite, Lieutenant Wilson, is overheard to remark upon “les belles sauvages” (32). Margaret’s reaction to the meeting between Mr. Jackson, her future husband, and her mother is that she “dreaded that he might respond to her warmth with cold civility, or perhaps worse, that he might fawn over her,” considering those who had “ridiculously romanticized her Indian Blood” in the past. The established “gentry” is bifurcated into a class system in which naval officers are often favoured over the sons of fur traders and in which the Work daughters are in close and constant competition with the “Douglas girls.” Their father, representative of the patriarchal society to which they belong, “banishes” them from Fort Victoria due to the influx of miners, and, as early as the first page, we are told that “even riding about the surrounding country now required a male escort” (1). Thus, on the one hand, Winn’s novel is one of manners and marriage in which a subtle glance across a ballroom floor can convey everything from social ostracism to marital intentions, while, on the other, it is just as unflinching as Henderson’s novel. In fact, it is in Winn’s examination of the intersections of race, class, and gender, and in the unstated bravery of her characters, that I find her work to be most superb.