Newfoundland author Trudy J. Morgan-Cole’s newest book, A Roll of the Bones (2019, Breakwater Books) is a work of historical fiction based on the small colony established in 1610 by John Guy in Cupids, Newfoundland on Conception Bay which has the distinction of being the oldest continuously settled official British colony in Canada. While there is some historical documentation regarding the settlement, there doesn’t exist much information concerning the individuals that settled there for Ms. Morgan-Cole to build a story on, so she built a story around the actual characters and many (particularly the women) who are products of her imagination. She tells us in her Afterword: “There is ample room for imagination in this story because so much is unknown and there is space to weave a lot of fiction in between the accounts left behind by John Guy, Henry Crout, and others.”
The book opens in Bristol, England with Kathryn Gale, and her maid Nancy Ellis who have been friends from birth, although of different stations in life. There is also a stonemason’s apprentice, Ned Perry, who has eyes for Kathryn although he knows she would never marry beneath her. Soon, Kathryn is married to Nicholas Guy, cousin of John Guy who wishes to establish a colony in the New Found Lande. Nicholas decides to throw in his lot with his cousin and they sail across the Atlantic with men, livestock and supplies to begin a settlement. The wives and other women will be sent for later, once the colony is established. Two years pass before John Guy returns to England to fetch the wives and other single women to take back to Cupids. Kathryn decides to go, and Nancy, from whom she has never been separated, deliberates but decides to go too if only to be with Kathryn in this fearsome place. Nancy’s Aunt Tib tells her:
“What if you don’t go with her? She will give you a good character, I suppose. Then you go to work in somebody else’s house, do what I’ve done all my life. Help some other woman keep her house and cook her meals and raise her brats. Mayhap amid all that you’ll find a husband of own, and then you’ll clean your own house, cook your own meals, raise your own brats.” She looked up from the plucked chicken. “Either way, ’twill be a hard life—what woman’s life is not?—but you’ll turn your hand to the task at hand. Like I’ve taught you to do.”
In Bristol, Nancy’s life course is set out for her just as Aunt Tib knows. But by taking advantage of this opportunity, she’ll break free of that cycle and perhaps have her own house and property in the new colony.
Since this is book one of a trilogy, the reader knows at the outset that the story doesn’t end on the last page. In between the time the wives and women land on terra firma, there is hard work ahead for all, regardless of what station they held in England. There are new skills to be learned, poor weather to be dealt with, pirates that raid along the coast, sickness, scurvy, childbirth, the timid Beothuks, and even a witch hunt! Ms. Morgan-Cole is a detail-oriented writer who clearly has all of her characters firmly fleshed out in her imagination, and the consummate skill she uses to have them interact in ways and means we might never have imagined will keep the reader entranced from the first word to the final full stop.
A Roll of the Bones is a flawless model of historical fiction. One can only hope that Book Two is soon to be on the horizon so we get to find out what additional adventures await our colonists. In a recent interview, Ms. Morgan-Cole stated: “I know in a general way what’s going to happen in Books Two and Three – I know where all the characters will end up – but I don’t know everything that’s going to happen along the way. I’m the kind of writer who figures a lot of it out during the process of writing.”
A five-star read, and I am putting it on the 2020 long list for “The Very Best!” Book Awards for Best Historical Fiction.
A Roll of the Bones by Trudy J. Morgan-Cole
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