By David Orr (Stonehouse Publishing)
Louis Riel is a well-known historical figure in Canadian history. David Orr’s book, “Encountering Riel,” is a smart, well-written historical fiction that lends a sympathetic tone to Riel’s 1885 Rebellion — a civil war between First Nations people and the Canadian government — and the ordinary shopkeepers and farmers pressed into uniform with no training and no lasting moral conviction that what they did was right. This is Orr’s first novel, and it is a First Book finalist in the High Plains Book Awards.
The story begins with Orr’s protagonist, William Lorimer, a university poetry student who fails to resign from his weekend militia obligation, and thus, is called to duty. His fellow countrymen start out thinking it is just a short jaunt out west. Riel’s people have been fighting for their land for almost 20 years at this point, and though much depleted, are a formidable enemy.
Orr creates a cast of complex characters and issues on both sides of the battle such as white English-speaking Protestants fighting Métis Catholics. Métis, Riel’s people, meaning mixed blood, are predominantly French Indian. Canada’s first nonnative explorers were the French who often married indigenous women.
Willy and company were told that the enemy are savages, but when they reach Riel’s township of Batoche, the well-tended farms and homes argue against this charge.
Orr does a great job describing the miserable travel conditions, the brutality of war, the politics of government and commanding officers. But for me, it was second lieutenant Willy Lorimer, who when told he was to order the men to march, took his commanding officer, a storekeeper, aside and proclaimed, “Captain, you mustn’t have too much faith in me. I don’t know anything, I mean, I’ve had no training at all. I’ve only fired this revolver six times and I don’t know how to march.” His commander patted him on the back with the words, “God Almighty Willy, you will fit right in.”
Author David Orr is a retired judge living in Sherwood Park, Canada. Shari Nault is the chair of the High Plains Book Awards and Louis Riel’s fourth cousin.