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For Audrey Thomas, the story was born in a series of whispers. She kept hearing about Isobel Gunn, the only white woman to live and work at Hudson's Bay in the early part of the 19th century and prior to the Selkirk Settlement. The first of the whispers occurred while Thomas was living in Scotland in the mid-1980s. She was based in Edinburgh for a year as a Canada-Scotland Literary Fellow for which she had to travel "all over Scotland talking to writing groups. That was the first time I heard about Isobel Gunn."
Later that same decade, Thomas was on assignment in Scotland's Orkney Isles for Saturday Night Magazine, "and I heard about Isobel Gunn again. I just kept hearing about her and I thought: I really want to do something with this."
Though she kept hearing about Isobel Gunn, the actual, factual research material wasn't so easy to come by. Thomas spent four years of what amounted to looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. "It's this little book, but just boxes and boxes of research," says Thomas. The author was only able to recover the thinnest of details about Isobel Gunn's life -- her birth certificate, some scattered log entries, a census line and Gunn's obituary -- but it was enough of a frame on which to embroider her well-told tale.
Much of what ended up in those research boxes was material that helped Thomas flesh out the period. The result is a rich, though fictional, recreation of the life of Isobel Gunn, the young Orkney woman who left her home in 1806 to travel to the new world. In order to gain passage and a place for herself in "Rupert's Land," Isobel disguises herself as a youth called John Fubbister. She works, "willingly and well," until, about to give birth, she is found out. Isobel Gunn is a moving story. Tightly written, it engages the reader with drama, intrigue and adventure.
Though Isobel Gunn: A Novel is Thomas' 14th book, it's her first work of historical fiction. Thomas says that the experience of reaching so far back was quite different from anything she'd done before.
"Doing this was really different. I'm not from Orkney. I really didn't know anything about the Hudson's Bay Company at all." In uncovering the facts she'd need to write the book, Thomas found some of the research moving and, perhaps, a little too real. "It was fascinating and it was also really sad to read about -- not all -- but some of the attitudes these chief proctors had toward Native people." It was, Thomas says, an inconceivable attitude, given that, without the assistance of the local aboriginal people, "[The forts] couldn't have existed out there without them."
At present, Thomas is at work on a memoir about her father. "He was a very sentimental Irishman and I'm intrigued about why everyone wants to be Irish. I started tracing my father -- who never went to Ireland, nor did his father. And I'm going to try and just speculate on that."
Originally from upstate New York, Thomas has made her home in Canada since the late 1950s. Her highly acclaimed novels include Latakia, Mrs. Blood, Songs My Mother Taught Me and Coming Down From Wa, which was shortlisted for the Governor General's Award and won the Ethel Wilson Prize. Several of Thomas' books have been nominated for the Governor General's, Canada's most coveted literary prize. When reminded of this, Thomas quips, "Yes. I never win. Always a bridesmaid."
Never say never. Now in her early 60s, Audrey Thomas lives in the Gulf Islands off the west coast of British Columbia. | September 2000
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of several books.