How Do You Celebrate Your Ancestors’ Stories?
Book Review: The Nine Lives of Charlotte Taylor by Sally Armstrong
The Nine Lives Of Charlotte Taylor is a blend of fact and fiction that tells the story of Sally Armstrong’s great-great-great grandmother. It chronicles her life from May 1775 when at age twenty and estranged from her father, General William Howe Taylor, Charlotte departs Bristol, England on the Anton with her black lover, Pad Willisams, the family’s butler. The couple head to the West Indies to meet Pad’s relatives and begin anew. Upon arrival in Jamaica, everything unravels. There are no relatives, they are forced to work at The Raleigh Sugar Cane Plantation and live in squalor. Pad succumbs to yellow fever leaving a pregnant Charlotte alone. Feigning his widow, she is befriended by Commodore George Walker who operates a trading post in Nepisiguit in what is now the province of New Brunswick, Canada. He provides her passage there and she bonds with the People of the Salmon, a Mi’kmaq community, and gives birth to a daughter. The Commodore admits knowing her identity but Charlotte refuses to return to England and adhere to constrained rules. Cognizant she could not remain with the Mi’kmaq permanently; she dons a pragmatic outlook, concedes a husband necessary and weds Captain John Blake. The book recounts Charlotte’s experiences until her death in 1841.
Structurally, the 397 page novel is well-organized. It opens with a map situating the four locales in Northern New Brunswick, Canada where Charlotte settles: In the Preface, Armstrong states, “Historians claim she was the first woman settler on the Miramichi River.” The fourteen chapters are titled and dated with a year marking a significant phase of Charlotte’s life. I welcomed the titles referenced the map thereby allowing the reader to follow Charlotte’s journey plus understand the landscape of the period. The last section contains an Afterword, which speaks to Armstrong’s writing process, the accuracy of some details and unresolved questions about the real Charlotte Taylor. Acknowledgments express thanks.
Finally, Sources lists books, papers and archives consulted. Armstrong’s tale is rich with history: the West Indies trade, the Mi’kmaq, Loyalists, American colonists, etc. The Web Sites include Chronology of the Abolition of Slavery, The Acadian History Time Line and The Importance of Food in Eighteenth-Century Louisbourg. This section will aid those keen to acquire deeper insight into the 17th and 18th centuries and Armstrong merits commendation for its comprehensiveness.
Charlotte’s life is grim yet inspiring. She bears ten children, outlives three husbands, buries her oldest son and dies without surety of reconciliation with her father. She is unrelenting in her demands that females are treated equal to males and land registered in a woman’s name. Though upper class bred; her respect for and adoption of traditional ways melded with wit, stamina and will enable her to adapt to harsh environs. As a result of tenacity and resourcefulness, she establishes homesteads for her family and carves an identity of her own design. Though her life unfolds contrary to her initial imaginings, the reader senses her peaceful passing from old age symbolic of graceful acceptance.
Sally Armstrong is a skilled wordsmith. The imagery she crafts enlivens the past and reveals Charlotte’s persona. This excerpt from Chapter 2, The Atlantic Seaboard 1775 when she first sees the Baie de Chaleur paints a beautiful picture of a scene that captured Charlotte’s wonderment. “…Forests of fir trees drop off into fields of glistening seagrass that wave over long, sandy beaches…They (the whales) move like undersea mountains, riding up to the surface and slipping out of sight again.”
The next reference from Chapter 3, The Baie 1775where Charlotte witnesses a great blue heron has a similar effect. “A giant bird with blue-and-grey feathers, a long angular neck and spindly legs is standing like a solitary custodian gazing out over the water….The bird is grand but vulnerable, so lonely in its repose….lifts off the sand suddenly and soundlessly, its massive wingspan spreading to a width that astonishes her, its neck coiling as it takes flight.”
And thirdly, the moose calf moccasins Marie, a Mi’kmaq woman, makes Charlotte in Chapter 5, The Nepisiguit 1776 when she is about to move to the Miramichi. The act honours native artistry, testifies to a relationship that contravened social norms and emphasized our heroine’s determination to set her own course. Armstrong’s parsing is stellar. “They (the moccasins) are violet in colour, the skins dyed with the juice of blueberries, the sides ornamented with the exquisite quillwork of the People.”
Though of a steely temperament, Armstrong has developed Charlotte as a multi-dimensional character. Captain John Blake has just died and this passage of internal dialogue at the start of Chapter 9, The Southwest Miramichi 1785 allows the reader to feel her anguish and fears about her bleak dilemma. “…Dark thoughts whir like hornets. Is she cursed? A dead lover, a dead husband, and she is only thirty years old. Elizabeth is nine, John is almost eight, Polly is five and Robert three….She looks at her husband’s ashen face-no serenity there, just the marks of his pain-filled last hours-and thinks, What am I to do with you? Then, What am I to do without you?”
Armstrong also excels at depicting harrowing incidents Charlotte and her counterparts faced. Here are two excellent examples that transport the reader back to this era. Chapter 1, The Ocean 1775 when an Atlantic storm batters the Anton as it sails from England to the West Indies, and Chapter 11, The Miramichi 1791 during a three-day nor-easter that ravaged the community.
My primary reservation about this book relates to uneven pacing. Whereas Armstrong most often pens exacting writing, on occasion, she whizzes through events and periods with scant attention. A case in point is Chapter 13, The Point 1814 that spans 16 years in 12 pages. This inconsistency produces a jerky ebb and flow that disrupts an otherwise excellent read. A recommendation to enlarge the map and feature enhanced text would represent a visual improvement. I will conclude this review by applauding Sally Armstrong’s tribute to her great-great-great grandmother and affirm my belief that Charlotte Taylor is proud of her and this book. May we all take the author’s lead and celebrate our ancestors’ stories.