Early Wabigoon serves as setting for historical fiction novel

webGaultBookBy Chris Marchand

Cinda Gault has some explaining to do.

But she’d rather you just read her 2015 novel This Godforsaken Place to best understand her protagonist’s complex relationship with the village of Wabigoon, Ontario in 1885.

The professor of English Literature at the University of Guelph wasn’t just throwing darts at a map when she set out to write a western, partly based just down the road in Wabigoon — the once bustling staging point for those seeking their fortune in the Manitou Gold Fields.

In her researches into the famed characters of the American West and Louis Riel’s North West Rebellion, Gault was looking for a geographical nexus in which to intertwine the lives of her protagonist Abigail Peacock with an escaped member of Jesse James’ gang and famed Métis leader Gabriel Dumont.

“I started reading about the Jesse James Gang and I was surprised how close that went on the Canadian border,” said Gault. “It would be conceivable that Jesse James Gang members would be up around that territory.”

Married to Wabigoon native Gary Baulne, the Toronto writer had spent plenty of time walking the lanes of the nearby railside village.

“It was a place I knew and it was place I could describe,” she said. “The landscape up there gets under your skin. I had been there in winter and in summer and I had that detailed experience that I could draw on.”

In the novel, British immigrant Abigail Peacock is a new arrival, a schoolteacher whose fate as a sensible shopkeeper’s wife seems oppressively inevitable, until a rash decision involving a rifle derails her destiny and places it in her own hands.

Gault says she drew several historical details from a local history book on Dinorwic, such as the name of Abigail Peacock’s suitor Lars Larsen among others.

As for the notion of Wabigoon as This Godforsaken Place, Gault says we shouldn’t really get our knickers in a bunch over it. Her intentions in that regard was to use the setting as a crucible through which her character undergoes a remarkable awakening and transformation. She adds the book’s title was selected using a trick borrowed from Margaret Laurence: simply grabbing a phrase from the first page of the book. In this case, Gault chose it from the opening sentence.

“It has with less to do with the place itself and more to do with Abigail’s state of mind,” says Gault. “She was kind of a pris at the beginning. A middle-class British immigrant in the 19th century coming to some new place that she has to adapt to. The Brit mentality of the 19th century was not big on adapting. She was the one who was going to have to change and this landscape was the catalyst for her change.”

Cinda Gault’s This Godforsaken Place is available locally at Novel Ideas.

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