Wow. It is always gratifying - but also very humbling - when a book reviewer assesses the merits of one's work. Rachel More, writing for Hamilton's Arts & Letters Magazine had some thought-filled things to say recently about TRILLIUM ...
Lindsay Holton’s TRILLIUM
Trillium by Margaret Lindsay Holton is a book that is
steeped in both geography and history. A very specific, very
localized geography and history. Trillium chronicles the
history of the Niagara Peninsula and European settlement and
From the first sentence - “Clinging tightly to the huge
boulder half way down the falls Tom watched the water cascade past
him into the churning gorge below” - it is clear that
landscape and natural power loom large (oftentimes literally) over
the lives of Holton’s characters. And well it should.
The founding myth of settler Canada is that of a country literally
hewn from forest and granite and transformed into a paradise – one
of the ‘breadbaskets of the world’ and a fertile and productive
region for wine. That this is a myth cannot be overstated. The last
10 years have seen a radical shift in how we talk about the colonial
period and the white men and women who came here from Europe and
transmogrified the land to suit themselves at the expense of the
non-white men and women who were already here. In a post-Truth and
Reconciliation society perhaps Holton’s most surprising literary
choice is the lack of racial tension which characterizes the opening
section of Trillium.
Young Tom Hartford, a British soldier in what would come to be
known (to Anglo-Canadians at least) as the French & Indian War,
is a model 18th-century man. His best friend is the Iroquois trader
Maakadegaagwan, known as Maaka, and the most problematic thought that
Tom has is that he would prefer to marry a white woman “He
would prefer to take a wife from his own kind, preferably with a
woman who could read and write and teach their children.”
Later, when Maaka’s customs make Tom’s new (Scottish) wife
uncomfortable, Tom assures her that “Maaka was the best there
ever could be”. He continues to defend his friendship with
Maaka in the face of increasing community pressure to segregate from
the indigenous people. Eventually though, Maaka stops coming around
and Tom cheerfully accepts this as he cheerfully accepts almost
everything else that happens.
But just as Canadian history doesn’t end with the English
victory at the Plains of Abraham, Trillium doesn’t end
with Tom Hartford peacefully living out his days on his Twenty Mile Creek peach farm.
Holton’s mandate is wide-ranging and no sooner has the story of
Tom Hartford, the first, drawn to a close than she introduces us to
another young man, aspiring to a better life, awestruck by the
majesty of his new country.
Francesco Di Angelo arrives in Hamilton from Sicily by merchant
steamer in 1835. His first view of the city highlights a
rapidly-changing Canada, juxtaposing “the bustling shoreline”
with the “escarpment-protected port at the end of this long
freshwater open lake”.
The meaning is clear: this is a natural setting for the ingenuity
and industry of human beings and the land will reward those who adapt
to and exploit it most judiciously. Francesco is one of those who
will profit by the land, at least in this era, because his love of
growing things makes him a natural fit as a picker on the Hartford
farm (now owned by Tom’s grandson, Tom Hartford III). “To him
this wasn’t work, it was play. It was soil. It was home. His hands
became chaffed from dirt and his fingernails became permanently
blackened with grit. He dug in deeper. He didn’t mind. He could
feel the sun on his back and hear the birds in the orchards. He could
literally see the fruit of his own labour. In September, he ate two
perfect peaches from the first tree he had picked.” Despite
his lack of English, Franco is embraced by the thoroughly Anglo
Hartfords in the first of many intersections between characters
throughout the centuries.
Holton’s book does indeed span centuries. Words like ‘panoramic’
or ‘multi-generational’ or even ‘saga’ would apply. It is to
her credit that she has looked at the history and demographics of
wine country and seen fertile ground (pun intended) for the kind of
sprawling family-history story made famous by authors like Isabel
Allende and Gabriel Garcia Marquez; though Holton’s novel doesn’t
feature the kind of precious magical realism that also typifies those
writers. Instead, her magic is more prosaic, but no less effective.
The opening section of Trillium, “Seeds”, introduces
both Tom, the first, and Franco Di Angelo as well as a third young
man with big dreams. Paddy O’Sullivan’s ambitions lead him down a
far different path than either of the others, with him becoming a
‘swell’ and most likely a petty criminal as well as a shrewd and
corrupt businessman (he will eventually become involved with Hartford
Fruit Farm through a shady land deal that sees Tom’s descendants
leasing land that Paddy has acquired).
Tom, Franco, and Paddy are the seeds that Holton grows her story
from and, like grapevines, that story grows strong and wild. The
Hartford, Di Angelo, and O’Sullivan family’s fates are
inextricably intertwined all the way up to the end of the 20th
century and the novel does not lack for dramatic events.
In fact, all
of the plot described so far covers less than a quarter of Trillium.
The magic is that Holton never confuses the reader (even with
multiple characters named, say, Tom Hartford) and she never loses the
sense of the terrain being a character as much as any of the humans.
As I wrote in the beginning of this review, this is a novel in
which history and geography are the twin engines driving the story
forward. Trillium could not be set anywhere but the Niagara
peninsula. This specificity is a strength, as is Holton’s gift for
capturing each historical period in detail without losing sense of
the larger whole.
As Trillium so aptly demonstrates even familiar territory
can contain multitudes worth examining. Her Southern Ontario tale is
full of intriguing characters with stories to tell and they are lucky
to be the products of a well-seasoned teller of tales. TRILLIUM is well worth the attention of anyone who lives in the Niagara peninsula - and anyone who doesn’t but still likes quality historical fiction.'
--- Book Review by Rachel More, for H&L Magazine. Published July 20th, 2019.
However, More's review is not without some criticism from me ... I believe she failed to 'round out' the manner in which I did include the current plight of the indigenous people in Canada. She failed to mention how I tied up the beginning of the novel to the end with the re-introduction of a 'snapshot' of the general perspective, circa 2001, from both the native and non-native points of view. I did this in a subtle way, (as an internet-exploring activity played out in a house full of university students), to remind the readers that 'settler' history - Canadian history - is, in fact, built on top of the pre-existing human history within North America ... In other words, contrary to her critique, I was very aware from the onset that, (even though this work is NOT a novel about the native tribes of Canada), I could not ignore the 'framework' of history that has shaped our young nation and its people.
I also think her opening assumption that all interactions between colonialists and the native peoples would have been necessarily fractious is off-the-mark. Historically, that is simply not the case. (The continental fur trade would never have happened if it had been.) More to the point, and worthy of greater thought and deliberation, is the whole IDEA of 'land ownership' that lies, like the good soil beneath our feet, beneath this tale ...
Land ownership remains the greatest bone of contention between the government of Canada and the First Nations tribal groups. Dominion of the land - including all rights and access above-and-below ground - will continue to be one of on-going strife between the two competing governing cultures if some sort of genuine and acceptable agreement cannot be achieved. There is no question that the historical wounds are deep and the generational scars omnipresent. But, obviously, no progress can or will be made as long as this on-going issue remains framed as one between 'winners and losers', or 'the dominant and the subordinate'.
If PEACE is desired, a new linguistic paradigm is very much needed.
For my point of view, and for what it is worth, nothing is ever really just 'black or white' in love or war - and that includes humanity's multifaceted evolution and diverse multicultural history. If we are to survive at all as a species on this planet, we have ALL got to rethink a LOT about our engagement with the natural world as well as our interactions with all species on this amazing twirling globe.
PICK UP YOUR COPY of TRILLIUM on Amazon CANADA here.