Sunday, May 15, 2011

Chester Brown's Louis Riel

When it comes to Canadian history, sometimes we need to dig a little deeper to find the charismatic, bold personalities that permeate American history.  With their intrepid pioneers and revered founding fathers, it's hard not to be a bit jealous.  If one cares to look, though, we have our share of interesting characters.  One of the more colourful actors on the stage of Canadian history has got to be the incendiary Louis Riel.  His Red River Rebellion is chronicled in Chester Brown's graphic novel, Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography. 

At the heart of this novel is the conflict between the Metis of the Red River Valley and the Canadian government who wished to expand westward and complete a national railroad.  Without consulting the local population about what it wanted, the Canadian government sent in surveyors and carved up the land that the Metis had settled for generations.  Riel led a group of Metis who opposed the Canadian government's high-handed approach and demanded that residents of Manitoba have some say in whether or not they wish to join Canada or form their own country.  Things went downhill from there.  Without giving anything away (though Manitoba is part of Canada so you can't be totally unaware of what happens) there are some skirmishes between the Canadian troops and the Metis.  

The ending is pretty obvious, but Louis Riel's personal story makes it a lot more interesting.  Brown does a great job in outlining the foibles of this leader while telling the story of the rebellion.  Riel is plagued by a single-minded determination to provide his people with representation and delusions of grandeur.  He considers himself to be a prophet and the Metis cause to be his holy crusade.  Between his various stints in mental institutions, he hid from those who persecuted him across Canada and the northern United States.  The story of Louis Riel is somewhat difficult for any writer of skill to screw up, with the constant conflict between various factions and Riel's demons.  However, Brown's drawing style and writing do nothing to detract from the plot.  What really excites me about this book is the fact that it might be a good way for a lot of people who wouldn't normally pick up a book about a Canadian historical figure.  And that is miracle in an of itself. 


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