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  • Making the Voyageur World: Travelers and Traders in the North American Fur Trade by Carolyn Podruchny
  • Emma Anderson
Making the Voyageur World: Travelers and Traders in the North American Fur Trade. By Carolyn Podruchny. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006.

Making the Voyageur World is Carolyn Podruchny’s ambitious attempt to open up the often caricatured but little studied world of French-Canadian voyageurs. Hardy indentured servants whose expertise in safely transporting tons of trade goods by fragile birch-bark canoe upriver into the pays d’en haut is legendary, the voyageurs were essential to the development of Canada’s colonial fur trade economy. Like other largely non-literate populations, the voyageurs, despite their economic importance and cultural ubiquity, have been systemically ignored as the subjects of serious academic research. Podruchny’s book illuminates their lost world through a chapter-by-chapter exploration of the voyageurs’ collective economic and cultural background, distinctive worldview, values, ritual life, and relationships, including peer friendships and rivalries, tense relations with their superiors, and the new ties many forged with aboriginal women in the pays d’en haut.

Perhaps the greatest strength of Podruchny’s book is the admirable depth of her research and the multifaceted nature of both her sources and her methodological and theoretical approach. Like many other scholars studying non-literate populations, Podruchny faces the difficult challenge of writing about subjects who themselves left very few textual traces. She responds by utilizing a wide variety of standard and alternative historical sources, from financial data to voyageur lyrics, ingeniously interweaving them into a readable, synthetic narrative based around the motif of a return journey to the pays d’en haut. As well as exploiting extant documents written or dictated by voyageurs and their families, Podruchny painstakingly interprets references to voyageurs in the writings of their superiors, usually company clerks, deftly turning the difficulties of these sources to her advantage by using them to map frequent areas of conflict between voyageurs and their masters. Diaries kept by literate travelers who occasionally accompanied voyageurs also throw light on their gruelling daily schedule and the formidable difficulties involved in maintaining fragile crafts and portaging large loads over distances as long as twelve kilometres.

Podruchny excels in her analysis of the values, rituals and relationships of her voyageur subjects, linking their geographic liminality with the far-reaching changes to their cultural, social, and religious identity prompted by their unique form of employment. She adroitly exposes the many ironies of voyageur identity, arguing that their embrace of a rough masculine ethic of courage, self-reliance, and hard work was easily manipulated by their masters to their own economic advantage. Voyageurs’ perception of themselves as “free,” she argues, was surprising given their position as servants subject to often exploitative labour conditions and systemic price-gouging at interior fur trade posts, company tactics which encouraged voyageur indebtedness, foiling the family-based economic strategies which prompted many habitants to seek this form of employment. Podruchny also notes that, despite their collective resentment of their company masters, voyageurs themselves created and ritually reinforced highly developed ranking systems within their own corps. Voyageur rank was based a number of factors: an individual’s “masculine capital” (p. 13), or adhesion to the collective values of courage and hard work, his canoe position (paddlers vs. the higher paid devants and gouvernails, who manned, respectively, the bow and stern of the canoe), his route (“pork-eaters,” who navigated between Montreal and Grand Portage, enjoyed less prestige than Athabasca men, who ran the more distant, difficult northerly routes), and his level of experience. In one of the highlights of the book, Podruchny analyses the voyageur practice of “mock baptism,” performed at key geographic points on the journey, a ritual which initiated greenhorns into the shared world of voyageur values whilst reminding them of their inexperience, simultaneously underlining and undermining rank. Podruchny’s use of ritual studies theory in this and other case studies adds to the richness of her analysis and to the applicability of her work outside of the historical and geographical confines of colonial North America.

While Podruchny is adroit at analyzing voyageur inter-relations and the complex dance of dependency and defiance...

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