I fell in love with history in Grade 10 when I did a world history course. To me, the course was all about the stories of people who had lived so many years before. In university I pursued this interest, doing a minor in history. Yet the history books gave only a hint of the stories, and often left more questions unanswered than answered.
Historical fiction is one attempt to answer those questions. My mom often says this is the best way to learn history. Many of my favourite authors—Sigmund Brouwer, Jane Kirkpatrick, Tricia Goyer—take a time or person in history and make them come alive through the story. I often thought, as I studied history in university, that someday I’d like to write like that myself. At the time, though, I was busy with my studies and with other writing.
At the 2008 ICWF Fall Conference, my dream of writing historical fiction was once again ignited. I’ve been fascinated by how Jane Kirkpatrick tells the stories of actual, historical American women. Many of them required a huge amount of research for her, because their stories haven’t been told before. I thought, “I want to do that—for Canadian women.” After the conference, it became my goal to find a woman whose story I could tell. Yet it took me several months to make it into our local small town museum.
It was a very small museum, and had much the same stuff as other museums I’ve been in. As Sunshine and I wandered through, one display caught my eye. It was on David Thompson. His name is pretty big in Canadian history—I knew he had explored most of western Canada and drew maps. Yet I didn’t know he had married a Metis woman. Her name jumped off the placard at me: Charlotte Small. Why had she never appeared in my history books?
Since that day, I’ve been working on finding out more about Charlotte. She and David were married for nearly sixty years—unusual in an era when fur traders married Indian women for the trade advantage it offered, and then retired back to England and left their “country wives” here. Charlotte’s own father, Patrick Small, had been one of these men, abandoning his family when Charlotte was six. Charlotte and David had thirteen children, most of whom survived them. She also accompanied David on many of his travels.
The more I learn about Charlotte, the more intrigued I am. As Aritha van Herk says, “We know so little about Charlotte Small that it is tempting to invent. We imagine her a beauty. We attribute to her, wisdom and devotedness. We construct between Thompson and Small a patient and loving partnership. For all their relative silence, they become the model couple of the great Canadian romance. The fur trader and the Cree woman together symbolize all that we imagine for a secret history of Canada.”