Canadian author Watt’s debut novel blends historical fiction and romance in a tale of two young lovers who brave the British assault on the French fortress of Louisbourg.
In 1744, Louisbourg sits on the island of Île-Royale (now Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia) as an isolated French outpost among British lands. Teenager Marie-Christine Lévesque and her brother, Nicolas, are French orphans, living with an aunt and her contemptuous, nobleman husband, Claude-Jean des Babineaux. Pierre Thibault, the son of a wealthy merchant, is smitten with Marie, but Claude disapproves of his family’s farming roots. Eventually, the British lay siege to the fortress, and Pierre seeks refuge in Quebec as an assistant to the procurator general. Marie goes back to France and lives in style and comfort but misses Louisbourg and Pierre; she also doesn’t want to marry an eligible French bachelor. Louisbourg falls into British hands but soon becomes French again, and Marie returns. Pierre’s law career is looking promising, but then an unknown villain has him arrested for army desertion even though he’s never enlisted. A panicked Marie goes on a long search for him, fearing that he may have been forced into military service or executed. She ends up in the care of her abusive uncle while Pierre languishes in prison. British warships gather, and Louisbourg comes under attack again, endangering Marie and Pierre’s future and that of New France. Watt’s well-researched novel has a spectacular choice of setting—an actual fortress from the time of the French colonization of North America. The novel succeeds in making the place come alive, remote as it is, with bustling streets, politics and drama, barrel after barrel of salted cod, and scrappy yet thunderous military battles. The romance elements won’t appeal to every reader, but they do parallel the important emotional connection that the people of New France had to North American communities, even by the 18th century. The rousing finale, set largely in a hospital during a constant bombardment, deftly balances the novel’s plotlines with period detail regarding war horrors and the era’s medical capabilities.
An engaging work set in one of the most intriguing locales in Canadian history.