Redcoats and Renegades

Resource Links (Volume 18, Number 1, 2012)

 In search of his mother, Sensational Sally Starr, Hamlet finds himself in trouble. It’s not a big deal, Hamlet’s always finding his way in and then out of scrapes, as a petty thief and con artist. But when he finds himself alongside the newly assembled Northwest Mounted Police (NWMP) at the beginning of their expedition, later renamed “the march west”, he has no idea if lady luck is smiling down on him or lying his noose.

Redcoats and Renegades is set along the Canadian/US border in the 1870’s. McDivitt accurately depicts a vast and untamed west and the struggles that accompanied the NWMP and those who tried to live in that land. Redcoats and Renegades uses truthful details and firsthand accounts throughout the novel which enhance the historical perspective. The language McDivitt uses however, is far too modern to fit appropriately into the time. The characters are original, quirky and well developed. Most secondary roles were those who really marched, traded, and lived in the Canadian west during the 1870's, adding to the realism of this short novel. I enjoyed this novel: it was funny, clever and interesting, in spite of its ability to educate me. — Corinne Malhews

 Thematic l.inks: Canadian History: North West Mounted Police: The March West; Whisky Traders; Adventure

Q&Q Spring 2012 Preview Books for Young People (January 11, 2012)

Getting some boys to read can be a perennial challenge, so it’s a good thing Redcoats and Renegades (Thistledown Press, $15.95 pa., March) by B.C. journalist Barry McDivitt is aimed squarely at reluctant readers. McDivitt’s tale centres on a young malcontent from New York who gains the dubious distinction of being the first person arrested by the new North-West Mounted Police and is forced to endure the long, difficult trek to Fort Whoop-Up.

SPG Book Reviews (Dec 18, 2012)At the time of this story-the early 1870s-the North West Mounted Police was still young. It was created after the purchase of the Northwest Territories from the Hudson’s Bay Company. The Mounties were charged with protecting the First Nations people from American whiskey and fur traders, and at the same time establishing a stronger Canadian presence in the newly-acquired land. The Mounties faced opposition not just from the Americans, but from Sioux and Blackfoot as well. Many characters, Hamlet included, express their doubt in the ability of the Mounties to bring order to the lawless West, expecting them to be massacred instead.

Hamlet’s perspective is fresh and entertaining. He sees the ridiculousness of some of the Mounties’ preparations, including carrying agricultural equipment and lances, but also exclaims in admiration when seeing the redcoats for the first time. The Mounties were lost for a good period of the expedition, and McDivitt paints a vivid picture of the heat, cold, bugs, thunderstorms, and multiple horse stampedes which they were forced to deal with.

The expedition encounters many colourful characters, including whiskey traders, American soldiers, outlaws, Sioux warriors and Métis. Many of these characters, like Sam Steele and Jerry Potts, were real people. Hamlet’s interactions with them are often quite humorous, and peppered with interesting slang. A preacher is a ‘sin-buster’, and a character who nearly drowns is said to have been almost ‘baptized all the way to heaven’.
Hamlet travels with the Mounties across the Prairies through many familiar places, including Fort Dufferin and the “remote outpost” of Fort Edmonton, all the way to Fort Whoop-up. McDivitt skillfully inserts passages placing Hamlet’s story in a wider historical context, weaving together fact and fiction. Readers will come away much more knowledgeable about Canada’s history, having learned about it in the most enjoyable and entertaining way possible.

CM (Volume XIX Number 5, October 5, 2012)Excerpt:

"I’ve seen you work. You have special talents,” said George. “If anyone can do it, you can.” We were sitting inside one of the big military tents. He’d taken me there to talk privately about the idiotic scheme he’d cooked up.

“You’re out of your mind,” I protested. “You actually want me to steal the envelope?”

George held a finger to his lips, warning me to keep my voice down. Yes, that’s right. The man Dutch gave it to is named Zenas. I think the envelope is in his shirt pocket.”

“You’re the police. You have the right to search every trader in Canada, don’t you?”

He nodded.

“Then search him and confiscate the envelope.”

“Then the traders will know they’re being watched. If they’re up to no good, I’d like to catch them without warning.” 

“Won’t they suspect something is wrong if the envelope mysteriously goes missing?”

“Absolutely. That’s why we have [to] return it before they realize it’s gone.” 

He was asking the impossible and I told him so

“It certainly won’t be easy,” he said calmly, “but it is possible. And you’re probably the only person in a thousand miles who can do it.” 

My anger finally bubbled over. “You’re crazy!” I shook my finger in his face. You’re the reason I’m stuck in the middle of nowhere,” I screamed. If you’d just minded your own business in Chicago, I wouldn’t be here.”

“No, you’d probably be in jail,” he said mildly. That’s what I hated most about Constable George Duguay of the North West Mounted Police. He was always calm and reasonable. It drove me crazy.

McDivitt sets his second novel within the historical context of the 1874 “March West” by the newly formed Canadian North West Mounted Police that travelled from Fort Dufferin in Manitoba westward to Fort Macleod in Alberta. The 15 year old protagonist, Hamlet Hamlin, who is heading west from New York City, encounters the NWMP in Chicago when George Duguay interrupts Hamlet’s picking the pocket of a “stout, well dressed” man, insists he return the stolen item, then nabs Hamlet again when he effects another theft. George and his young companions number among the 270 plus second column of the NWMP who, with the permission of the United States’ government, are travelling through the United States territory on the way to Fort Dufferin from where the historic March West will begin the summer of 1874. Hamlet is astonished to learn the NWMP contingent’s mandate is to protect Indians from whiskey traders “because they’re Canadian citizens” since the prevailing attitude south of the border is “the only good Indian [is] a dead one.” On his way to find his mother, the “sensational Sally Star” performing somewhere in the West, Hamlet accepts George’s invitation to travel with the Canadians.

In Fargo, North Dakota, Hamlet finally locates Sally who introduces him as her brother, and, insisting he must make his own way, finds him a job with Dutch Mulder, a whiskey trader/teamster. Dutch, unfortunately, has some enemies, among them traders Seneca Sam and Liver Eating Johnson from whom Dutch has stolen money and who has been forced to return it. Nimble fingered Hamlet steals the money from Seneca, passes it to Sally, rescues Dutch, and, with Seneca’s threat of revenge, joins the Mounties working for Dutch who signs on as a teamster with the wagon and horses he just happened to steal. Dutch suggests they cross the border with the Mounties to escape Seneca and Johnson and avoid lawmen looking for the stolen wagon, and then, after Fort Dufferin, they return to the US and go their separate ways.

Hamlet, a born and bred New Yorker, finds the journey challenging – hard ground to sleep on, horses, bad cooking and terrible food, military discipline, extreme weather, the constant threat of Indians, Dutch’s habits and collection of enemies. The expedition reaches Fort Dufferin where they meet the first column who had “travelled west by canoe.” Commissioner George French, a British army officer, trains “the new police force along military lines,” but quickly learns that the recruits, “tall and well built”, lacked some basic skills and “couldn’t ride a horse, shoot a gun,” had no survival skills, and no experience as policemen. Dutch meets up with fellow trader Zenas, and George recruits Hamlet to steal a letter that he suspects shows the traders in collusion about whiskey trading. The most positive event for Hamlet is meeting a young Métis woman, Annie Lucas, who helps him out of several jams, including being dumped by his recently acquired pinto, Hero, and the continuing threat of Seneca and Johnston.

Dutch and Hamlet travel with the overland second column heading for Fort Whoop Up – “scarlet riders and colour coordinated horses,” horse drawn wagons with supplies, a pair of cannon, agricultural equipment, Métis with Red River carts, a herd of cattle. Observers predict failure: “the Canadians will come to a bad end.” The expedition is plagued by challenges – incompetent leadership, flat, dusty prairie, no water, no trees, no wood for fires, no water canteens, ambushes by mosquitoes and fleas, grasshoppers that strip every blade of grass, thunder and hail storms, incompetent Métis scouts, starving horses, Red River cart breakdowns, lack of decent food, prairie fires, the constant threat of Indian attacks, sick men and horses, and food shortages. When the inept scouts finally lead them to the location where Fort Whoop Up should be, only ”three abandoned log cabins,” roofs caved in, remain, and the “ragged band” heads for Sweet Grass Hills. After securing supplies from Fort Benton, Montana, French departs for Swan River, leaving command to James Macleod who engages scout Jerry Potts to lead them to the correct location of Fort Whoop Up, now almost abandoned. George again recruits Hamlet to help him deal with Dutch who has “been in cahoots with the whiskey traders since we left Fargo.” Warned of the arrival of the Mounties, the whiskey traders had hidden the liquor in “a man made cave hollowed out of the riverbank”, and Dutch plans to load it on his wagon and sell it to the Indians. George, accompanied by Fred Bagley and Jerry Potts, stops Dutch before he can load the whiskey and sends him on his way. Dutch still believes he has whiskey in his wagon, but Hamlet and George had poured out the liquor and substituted water. Seneca and Johnson appear intent upon killing both Dutch and Hamlet; however, again the Mounties come to their rescue. Ultimately, despite planning to return to the United States, Hamlet decides to stay with the expedition as their teamster.

By 1920, the North West Mounted Police became Canada’s national police force, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police that today faces numerous challenges and frequently makes media headlines. McDivitt’s historical novel tracing the March West offers a glimpse of the beginnings of law and order in the Canadian West and should appeal especially to young male readers with the judicious mixture of history and adventure. Juxtaposing the law and order NWMP “redcoats” with the “renegade” whiskey traders and outlaws permits the author to trace the hardships and difficulties of bringing the force West with the spirit of adventure that motivated many of the recruits to join the newly minted police force Choosing a young American “outlaw” as the protagonist to indulge in relatively unbiased commentary and observations allows McDivitt the freedom to spin his tale. Hamlet is an engaging, albeit somewhat shady central character, whose adventures capture the spirit of the westward march and whose observations and humour move the plot along. The cast of secondary characters runs the gamut from the military pomposity of Commissioner French to the rough criminal elements exemplified by Dutch, Zenas, Liver Eating Johnson, and Seneca Sam contrasted with the heart of the force, the young recruits, and the most admirable of the lot. Subplots with the shenanigans of the outlaws add humour and tension to the plot and break up the long descriptive passages outlining the difficult conditions and hash terrain the force faces as it moves west from Fort Dufferin in Manitoba to what becomes Fort Macleod in Alberta.

With a background as a journalist, screenplay writer, writer/producer for Global Television, public relations and promotion, and author of The Youngest Spy (CM, Vol. XIV, No. 7, November 23, 2007), McDivitt exercises his experience in his second novel for young readers. Redcoats and Renegades is well paced with a wealth of information and description; unfortunately careless editing sometimes detracts from the smoothly flowing prose. Mismatched details as early as the first chapter with Hamlet’s father giving him $10 that becomes $4 a page later, missing words in sentences, an appalling inability to spell Jerry Potts’ name (consistently using Gerry and Jerry) are irritating errors.

McDivitt lists several first hand accounts of the March West in the “Acknowledgements” for further reading. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police website at www.rcmp grc.gc.ca provides valuable information about the beginnings of the force for interested young readers.

Highly Recommended.

Darleen Golke, a former teacher-librarian, writes from Abbotsford, BC.