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Historical fact meets fiction in professor’s new novel

Professor Cinda Gault (Photo Supplied)In the late 1800s, Louis Riel’s Red River Rebellion challenged the government, Annie Oakley’s sharpshooting entertained the masses and the bank-robbing gang of Jesse James pushed ever-closer to the Canadian border. At the intersection of these three spectacles stood Abigail Peacock, an English immigrant living in the frontier outpost of Wabigoon, Ontario.

Miss Peacock is the star of This Godforsaken Place, an historical novel written by University of Guelph-Humber professor Cinda Gault and published by Brindle & Glass. After traveling across the Atlantic with her father to make a new life in Canada, Abigail finds herself sliding into a life she never imagined and that she simply doesn’t want. She’s soon living in a rural village, teaching in a rickety schoolhouse and being courted by a local shopkeeper, a kind man, but one who leaves Abigail uninspired.

As her future appears more and more oppressively inevitable, Abigail strikes back. She purchases a rifle and is soon launched into a Western adventure. Dr. Gault, who teaches courses in English literature and writing, says the novel looks to remedy one of the problems that can arise when people discuss the past.

“When you learn about history, it’s usually in self-contained categories. You’ll learn European political history, or American social history, but that’s not how things actually happened,” she says. “All of these things can be happening at the same time. Jesse James was active at the same time that Louis Riel was, and people they knew worked with Annie Oakley.”

That historical backdrop is the setting for Abigail’s journey. After saving the life of one of Jessie James’ comrades, she’s left to deal with the outlaw’s enormous bundle of stolen cash. Abigail gets entangled with Annie Oakley, and soon the two are working together.

While firmly in the camp of fiction, This Godforsaken Place blends its narrative with historical fact, a feature made possible by Dr. Gault’s extensive research. Abigail reads newspapers with headlines that Dr. Gault dug up from historical archives. When she runs into an historical character, it’s because they were in that place at that time. Accommodating reality was challenging, but Dr. Gault says that structure made for a better story.

"This Godforsaken Place blends its narrative with historical fact.  Abigail reads newspapers with headlines that Dr. Gault dug up from historical archives. When she runs into an historical character, it’s because they were in that place at that time."

“You’re fairly stuck with history, but I really didn’t think of it as a limitation,” she says. “I’ve heard it said that creativity loves constraint — you have these circumstances given to you and you have to weave something around them to make sense of the past.”  

Dr. Gault wrote the novel while also teaching at UofGH. As both an author and an academic, she brings a unique perspective to how she teaches her subject matter. In her English classes, Dr. Gault makes an effort not just to analyze texts with her students, but also to make them see why it’s such an important task.

“No matter what field you’re going into, being able to read and write well are essential skills. But reading fiction goes further and refreshes the soul. There’s no other circumstance where you can inhabit the space of another person and feel like you’re living in their skin,” she says. “By experiencing how other people think, even if we vehemently disagree with them, it gives us a better sense of who we are.”

Along with being available at bookstores and online, This Godforsaken Place can be found at the Humber Bookstore.