With Nothing But Our Courage

Does it still qualify as a Revolutionary War book is it takes place just slightly afterwards? Sure, why not. This takes place juuuust as the war is finishing up and then just after.

With Nothing But Our Courage: The Loyalist Diary of Mary MacDonald, Johnstown, Quebec, 1783, Karleen Bradford, 2002.

mary macdonald

I have to say I’m not the biggest fan of Karleen Bradford, and this isn’t even my favourite novel by her. But it’s still really interesting to visit the postwar period from a non-American perspective, since the Dear America novels on this period focus on the war itself and even the Loyalist novel takes place at the very beginnings of the war.

The Revolutionary War is one of those mish-mashy things that encompassed a bunch of different combatants (did you know Spain was involved???) and brought a generally rocky start to the United States. So the book’s setting, in 1783/84, is right in the thick of the nonsense. The protagonist, Mary, lives in Albany with her Loyalist parents and grandmother and two younger siblings—her older brother Angus being off fighting with the King’s army. A group of Patriots—including former friends of the family—take her father and tie him to a mule and parade him through town, telling him to get out of town or else.

That’s pretty much the major impetus, since they set the family’s cornfield on fire, and her Father says that they’re out of there the next day. They pack up as much as they can stuff into a wagon just in the nick of time, as another group of drunken men push their way into the house and begin smashing up what’s left behind and stealing everything they can carry. They get out of there in a hot hurry, and it’s pretty heartbreaking. Mary’s infant sister Margaret is only three months old (good God), and her father confesses to her that while they’re heading to Quebec, he’s not entirely sure what will happen there. So they’re in the woods—a couple, an elderly grandmother, their twelve-year-old daughter, their five-year-old son, and a three-month-old infant—and not 100% certain as to what will happen when they get….wherever it is they’re going. “It is all very frightening and confusing.” I’ll bet.

One of the things this book does pretty well is the description of a parent with depression—Mary’s mother is really disturbed by everything that’s going on and keeps clinging to the idea that they’ll be able to go home one day. “It’s strange—Mother has always taken care of me but now I almost feel as if I must take care of her. She is so distraught and her eyes look so empty.” Mary takes on a larger and larger share of the “household” chores (can it really be called household if you’re camping in tents and moving) and baby care in order to spare her mother, and we learn that part of her mother’s depression is because they lost Mary’s older brother to a fever the previous year. So, let’s recap: isolation and ostracization in your war-affected village, losing your teenage son to a fever, having your other teenage son go off to fight, your husband being assaulted and your house ransacked, and having to leave your home and farm on a 300-mile march to an unknown place. With your three other children, one of whom is three months old. Well, is it any wonder that she’s depressed?

Along the way, luckily, they run into an Indian traveling in the same direction (and in another bit of handwaving, Mary’s father “learned a little” of his language years ago), who gives them a hand since they’re literally fighting through the brush for big chunks of the trip. They ford a river and nearly capsize (more fun), and the land gets pretty formidable (they’re traveling through the northern ridges of the Adirondacks and the Green Mountains), and in one encampment they meet up with a family traveling to the same place they are. There’s a daughter, Hannah, the same age as Mary, and a few siblings, and Mary is ecstatic to have someone her own age to talk to. But they all have to leave most of their belongings behind, since they can’t take their wagons on the boat taking them north on Lake Champlain, which is devastating considering they’ve just lugged all their most precious goods north across some terrible rivers and up some mountains and what all. But once they’re aboard, the boat goes much more quickly than the wagon, and after they all get over their seasickness it’s a reasonably pleasant trip.

But once they’re landed, they have to travel on foot, and Mary ends up carrying the baby plus a job lot of their stuff as well. It’s November by this point, so it’s wet and horrible, and Margaret comes down with a cold and won’t stop crying for anything. They arrive at Sorel, in Quebec, a military encampment, where the soldiers set them up with blankets and food and best of all, Mary’s brother is there! That goes a long way to improving her mother’s mood, and they’re all thrilled to see him and his friend Duncan. Angus tells them all about how he was in a prison camp and smuggled out by Duncan’s mother, who brought in women’s clothing and walked them right out, which in an interesting side note is an actual true story. Of course, in the true story it was two Revolutionary soldiers in a British POW camp, but the idea is the same.

Anyway, the family settled into a teeny little cabin with some food and a few kitchen things, and things settle down a bit. Margaret is still sick, but they have kind neighbours and everything is shared, and it seems that things are looking up right up until Margaret dies. This just about kills Mary’s mother, who was at the breaking point before this. Mary keeps going to school, even though it doesn’t exactly make her feel any better, and as December rolls around things are looking pretty bleak for all of them. They have a little food, but barely any clothes and they don’t have any of the things that the governor had promised they’d receive when they came. Angus has to head west to help clear lands there for the settlers, which doesn’t help anything, and a family’s house burns down just a couple of weeks before Christmas. How festive.

Just after New Year’s, Mary’s friend Hannah comes down with a terrible fever and is sick for nearly a month, and almost dies. Then Mary’s parents have a horrible fight when her father says that they’ll all be moving west in the spring, since her mother was hoping that they’d be going home—although her father points out that they have no home to go back to and nobody there who’s even remotely interested in helping them out, at all. She’s not the only one discomfited at this news, since plenty of other families were not anticipating another dreadful and dangerous trip, but things change once the governor’s promised supplies finally make their appearance in March.

They head out in May, and it’s a huge mess with thousands of people from all kinds of different refugee camps and not nearly enough boats to take everyone west as promised. They’re back to living in a muddy, dirty tent for a couple of weeks until they set out at the end of the month. They arrive in Johnstown in June (which is between modern-day Cornwall and Kingston, Ontario), and Mary’s mother is pretty frustrated at how there is nothing there. Nothing at all. Just woods. But Angus arrives at the beginning of July, just in time for everyone to draw lots for land. They have a good plot, with fresh water and plenty of wood, and they all have to pitch in to help clear some of it.

Things seems to improve for real, then, with Mary’s mother perking up a bit as they build the new place and having Angus building his own place nearby. They have their own meat to shoot, their own home instead of a tent, and they won’t have to move ever again. There’s an Indian village nearby that Mary’s father befriends (“I do not know how he managed to understand them, but he tells us that they will take him fishing…” what, he just magically speaks every local Indian language? There are a lot!) and for once they finally have enough to eat. Mary injures herself terribly when a pot of boiling water tips over onto her legs, but she’s cheered up a bit when their friends stop by to fill them in on how Hannah and her siblings and all are doing.

The men build a road to the town, and amazingly the promised supplies have come in, so they have ammunition and tools and chicken and even a spinning wheel. The neighbours from Sorel are all there, and they’re all pleased to see one another as they have a logging bee to clear an area in the town square. Best of all, Mary’s mother is pregnant again, and Angus and Duncan have both built their own little cabins, so everyone is finally doing well there. We also learn Duncan’s Terrible Secret, which is….his family are Patriots! The horror! Now, as per usual, this is more interesting than the rest of the story—I would totally read a Dear America/Canada about a girl whose family is split in two because some agree with the rebels and some don’t. The story as it’s written is interesting too, but wouldn’t have that been great?

In the epilogue, Mary and Duncan get married (this is one of those things painfully obvious throughout the book), and Mary’s brother Angus gets married to her friend Hannah, and they all live a long time and have prosperous lives full of kids and success, etc. etc.

Rating: B-. It’s interesting. It’s well-written, and doesn’t stomp too much on the “DID YOU KNOW THESE PEOPLE ARE SCOTTISH???” note, which these books can sometimes fall into. The story itself is a pretty basic “family travels around in search of a better life, also, war,” but the war itself really doesn’t enter into it all that much despite being set in 1783/4. Mostly it’s a far-off backdrop, with the focus on the family leaving the new United States with extreme prejudice. This is one of those books that would be great to have kids read in a standard American Revolution unit in middle-grade history classes, because I was probably fourteen or so before I realized that the Loyalist narrative was chronically under-examined in average US history understanding of the period.

Where I live now [N.B: where I lived when I wrote this, I have since moved to a place that is not historically Loyalist, but still interesting!) is a historically Loyalist area, and the plot of land my house sits on was actually initially part of a grant to a Loyalist group for settlement in the 1780s in return for service in the King’s army (all kinds of fun things you learn when buying a house!) so it’s pretty cool to examine this from a YA perspective. My quibbles with the book are pretty minor (it drags a bit in places, the main character isn’t terribly well developed), but one the things I think this book could have really done well with is representation of a parent with an illness (depression). The vast majority of historical fiction tends to shy away from representing people who are different from the norm—especially parents, who tend to come in two varieties: Strong Reliable and Wholesome, or Abusive (Various Types). I would have really enjoyed a book that touched on Mary’s mother struggling with depression (understandably so) that didn’t have it resolving itself magically a quarter through the book, but I’m probably asking a lot from a 150-page kids’ book.

Regardless, this is a really interesting counterpoint to the standard American discussion!

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