Thursday, September 01, 2022

Danielle Daniel's Daughters of the Deer tells a story from her 17th-century Indigenous ancestors' history

Canadian writer Daniel’s poignant historical novel, her adult fiction debut, reveals important truths about Indigenous women’s lives. The daughters of the title are Marie and Jeanne of the Weskarini Algonkin people – the deer clan – in the place now called Quebec.

“In the year they call 1657, I am to marry a white man. A white man whose blood will flow in the veins of my children and my children’s children,” says Marie, a talented healer. She agrees to wed French trader Pierre Couc to save her tribe, most of whose men were killed fighting the Iroquois. Among the coureurs de bois, Pierre seems kind and respectful of her ways, yet theirs isn’t an alliance of equals.

Marie’s narrative is deeply empathetic as she worries about the white settlers’ greed – they take from the land without showing respect for its gifts – and their supplanting of Native traditions in favor of Catholicism, a religion the Weskarini chief asks his people to follow for their protection.

Marie and Pierre raise a large family, and the future of their eldest daughter, Jeanne, is always on Marie’s mind thanks to an elder’s prophecy. By the laws of the French king, thousands of miles distant, Jeanne must marry by a certain age or Pierre will be fined, but Jeanne’s beloved is her neighbor and best friend, Josephine. Although same-sex romantic relationships are honored among the Algonkins, the whites consider them shameful at best.

Daniel’s crystalline prose ensures a smoothly elegant read that emphasizes the pristine beauty of the region and her compassion for what her ancestors endured (Marie and Jeanne are on her family tree). Her story also lays bare the deliberate erasures made by colonialism, which has left a tragic, long-lasting legacy. Deservedly a Canadian bestseller, this novel exemplifies historical fiction’s noble purpose of revivifying important voices from the past.

Daughters of the Deer was published by Random House Canada this spring (I reviewed it for August's Historical Novels Review based on a NetGalley copy).  The novel is published in Canada, but sold in the US as a paperback or Kindle ebook for anyone interested in getting their own copy.

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