News Article - Vol. 17 - No. 2 Summer - 2003 - BC BOOKWORLD

Publisher/Writer: Alan Twigg

"All fort employees were, in a sense, slaves to the Company."

Inspired by Fort Langley Journals of the Hudson's Bay Company, Susan Dobbie's When Eagles Call (Ronsdale $19.95) imagines Pacific Northwest life through the eyes of a Hawaiian labourer in the early 19th century, Kimo Kanui. Dobbie's protagonist is one of hundreds of Hawaiians who were imported by the HBC and the North West Company to work in the fur trade from 1811 onwards.

Recruited in Honolulu, Kimo and his seven companions are told they'll be stationed somewhere between Sacramento and Alaska. During his six weeks aboard the Thomasina, he discovers any "Kanaka" (the world for 'person" in Hawaiian) who fails to obey orders will be clapped in irons, malcontents will be flogged. In leaving behind the degradation of his beloved "Old Hawaii" - a paradise ruined by missionaries, sailors and brothels - Kimo has unwittingly opted for a puzzling and cold place where pelts are as important as people. Indentured HBC sergvice is only one step up from slavery. Much to his dismay, he must help the HBC control warring factions of Indians. Transferred from the trading hub of Fort Vancouver in Oregon to squalid and remote Fort Langley, Kimo is paid to subjugate the Sto:lo, the River People, also known as the Halkomelen.

"Slavery was a large and cruel part of Indian culture in the Pacific Northwest and he wondered if and when it would end. Some Indian wives of the fort men even kept slaves. He hadn't quite grasped how it all worked, for some were treated well enough - almost as family - while others were utterly brutalized.

"When he thought about it, there were days he felt much like a slave himself. All fort employees were, in a sense, slaves to the Company. The only difference was that your bondage ended after three years, and you got paid for it."

Venereal disease, known as Chinook love fever, is not the least of the worries faced by the transplanted Europeans, Hawaiians and their Indian concubines. Some, like the Hawaiian bully Ahuhu, are reduced to abject weakness and desperation by alienation. Kimo stays out of trouble as much as he can and becomes enamoured of Rose Fanon, daughter of a departed Voyageur named Jacques and a Nooksack woman named Lawi'qum. Unable to speak her language, Kimo romances her, saves her and hopes to gain her people's consent to marry her.

As a wide-eyed middleman between clashing, co-mingling cultures, Kimo learns about a myriad of tribes: the Kwantlen, Musqueam, Katzie, Sumas, Chilliwacks, Pilalts, Taits, the Nanaimo, Cowichan, Squamish, Sechelt, the Skagit, Snohomish and Duwanish tribes, plus the Nooksacks, Klallams, Coquitlam, Tsawwassen, Whonnock, Matsqui, Nicomen and Scowlitz.

The loyalties of the earnest young hero are divided between his HBC duties, yearnings for Hawaii and his infatuation for Rose under the swaying pines.

The Fort Langley annals used for research are at Langley's Centennial Museum, where Dobbie worked as a volunteer docent for ten years.