Mark Bourrie has written a classic Canadian historical biography. The best-selling author, and award-winning journalist, lays bare the mottled myths of colonial settlement. He weaves a compelling, sometimes lurid, but always enlightening narrative of the legendary adventurer, scoundrel, Pierre-Esprit Radisson. Bush Runner chronicles Radisson’s adventures from exploiting the expanding fur trade to finagling European imperial military ambitions to his own advantage in the 17th century Americas.
Bush Runner is a national best-seller, made the Globe & Mail’s 100 Books that shaped the 2019 list, and last month gleaned $30,000 with the prestigious RBC Taylor Prize for excellence in literary non-fiction. But that’s not the only reason to read the book– read it because Radisson is, as Bourrie says in the introduction, “the Forrest Gump of his time. He’s everywhere. And because he could read and write, he managed to tell us about it.”Pierre-Esprit Radisson is a fearless opportunist who strives to breach the bonds of class while exploiting every opening for personal gain and glory. If reincarnated today, I suspect he would insinuate himself into Silicon Valley or Wall Street. At the same time, he would likely sell, barter, and steal his way to fortune, fame, and public approbation.
“Radisson was no hero. He was, at best, an eager hustler with no known scruples,” notes Bourrie. A beguiling anti-hero, imagine a cross between Kevin Costner’s Lt. Dunbar in Dances with Wolves and Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean.
Pierre-Esprit arrives in Trois-Rivières, Quebec, in 1651, as a fifteen-year-old, only to be kidnapped and adopted by a powerful Mohawk family in upstate New York. He escapes, is recaptured, and forced to run the gauntlet as punishment. He flees a second time, and with the help of an Algonquin prisoner, murders his hunting companions. He captured again within sight of his home fort in Trois Rivieres. This time he not only endures a brutal gauntlet but is ritually tortured by the slow removal of fingernails, a scorched thumb, and pierced foot. Despite Pierre-Esprit’s repeated betrayal, his adopted Mohawk family protects, ransoms, and even forgives him. He re-assimilates to the community. Bourrie’s empathy and intercultural competence manifest in his depiction of the Iroquois (Haudenosaunee). He is empathetic for First Nations cultural mores, ceremonies, and warfare. Especially when compared to European atrocities, like the fate of Braveheart, William Wallace. The author offers an unbiased perspective on Indigenous peoples when compared to popular histories written by terrified soldiers and Jesuits or from colonial settler perspectives.
His third escape, abetted by Dutch colonists and aided by Jesuit networks, succeeds. He returns to France, yet unbowed returns to New France on the first available ship. Radisson endures and thrives in the company of coureur-des-bois at fur-trading outposts, conniving priests in Jesuit missions, and the royal courts of Paris and London. He double-crosses almost everyone he deals with from the French, English, and Dutch to his generous and forgiving adoptive Mohawk clan.
Yet, Radisson, the 17th-century French fur trader, adventurer, and raconteur, had nothing to do with founding the eponymous international hotel chain. After a couple of chapters, it becomes clear that he was never temperamentally suited to the duties of a hotelier. No chocolates on the pillowcase, but cold-blooded murder, gun-running, and cannibalism are on the menu. He would, along with his brother-in-law, Médard Chouart des Groseilliers, press forth against all the odds to found the Hudson’s Bay Company, the oldest corporation in the English-speaking world. Imperial credit, denied in their lifetimes, would come later as written records surfaced, and social-class barriers receded.
He goes on to bear witness to London’s Great Plague and Great Fire, at a time when French Catholics and foreigners were easy scapegoats for angry and long-suffering local mobs. Radisson, marooned by Dutch pirates on the coast of Spain, survives only to shipwreck on the rocky reefs of Venezuela. His treasure chest and life-saving were not as fortunate.
Radisson ends up in England, eking out his final years on a lowly Hudson’s Bay pension. He lived for about seventy-four years. “A ripe old age at the time.”
As Bourrie notes in the introduction: “Lies, murder and plunders aside…Radisson [was] a brave man who must have been a tremendous dinner companion, as long as you weren’t on the menu.”
Bush Runner: The Adventures of Pierre-Esprit Radisson By Mark Bourrie
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