Towards the end of Lorri Neilsen Glenn’s enthralling memoir-like journey of discovery Following the River: Traces of Red River Women (2017, Wolsak & Wynn), she states:
“When we consider countless horrors in the world, innumerable disasters and catastrophes, a ship consumed by fire on a late summer night is but only one. Unremarkable, yet its dark stroke colours lives for generations.”
The ship in question was the SS Premier, a ship that plied the waters of Lake Winnipeg, carrying people and cargo south to north, north to south. One of the passengers that died in the fire was the author’s great-grandmother, Catherine. In her book, Ms. Neilsen Glenn embarks on a very personal journey to discover more about her Red-River past, the women who preceded her as well as the rough, frontier lives they led in Rupert’s Land.
“The more I researched the stories of my grandmothers and their contemporaries, the more I realized how much I had to learn and – more importantly — to unlearn.”
The contents are book-ended by the author’s narrative of her journey and the people she meets (family or otherwise) and the places she travels to in order to rediscover her past and that of her ancestors. In between are scores of poems (penned by the author), Testamentums, photographs, news clippings, court proceedings and anything else the author gleaned along the way, assembling it all into a cohesive, organized way to tell the story of life in the Red River/Rupert’s Land area at the close of the 19th century and the dawn of the 20th.
“It was at least five years solid work — and the more I searched, the more hooked I was on the research, finding bits and pieces here and there [….] I immersed myself in 19th Century newspapers, contemporary and centuries-old books, archival material, fur trader and clergy journals — every source possible. The manuscript became a story in pieces, glimpses into the women’s lives. I double and triple-checked sources reached out to historians and story-keepers and listened. I’m still listening. This book has changed my life.”
More than a testament to her ancestors, the project grew to include the abuse of Indigenous peoples’ rights and the almost total absence of any women’s rights, especially if they were “half-breeds” and so-called “country wives” that the men could use and abuse (and leave with child) as they wished. Most poignant is the visit by Ms. Neilsen Glenn and her new-found cousin Margaret to Warren’s Landing where the SS Premier burned to the waterline over a century ago. Very little is left of the wharf or buildings that existed back then, but there is still something there for the author:
I was captivated and gently drawn into Ms. Neilsen Glenn’s account of her amazing journey right from the beginning. She has laid it out in such a way that the reader cannot help riding along with her to the places she drove, the historic sites and graveyards she visited and walk along the streets of her childhood with her, even join in on lunch and conversation with her amazing 102-year old Aunt Kay.
September 9th, 2018: Following the River has been awarded “The Very Best!” Book Award for Non-Fiction!
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lorri Neilsen Glenn is a poet, essayist, teacher and researcher. The former poet laureate of Halifax, she has won awards for her writing, her innovative teaching, her research and her work in the arts. She is professor emerita at Mount Saint Vincent University and a mentor in the University of King’s College MFA program in creative non-fiction. She lives with her family in Nova Scotia. (My sincere thanks to the author for allowing me to use excerpts from her book as well as from our email exchanges.)