If you haven’t heard of the Road Allowance People, I urge you to ask your library or bookstore to order Jacqueline Guest’s new book, Outcasts of River Falls.
The Road Allowance People were the Métis, who, without a homeland, were forced to build homes and communities on the crown land known as “road allowance” land set aside for a highway. They lived a precarious existence, welcome neither in white settlements nor allowed to live on Treaty land. The Crown land, of course, could be appropriated or developed at any time; people were often burned out of their homes or otherwise forced to move.
In a fast-paced story, readers meet a Toronto orphan who finds herself living with her Aunt Belle, a survivor of the 1885 Louis Riel Uprising. This is young adult historical fiction that cuts close to the bone.
Guest is a prolific author who this year received a well-deserved Indspire Award (formerly the Aboriginal Achievement Award). She lives in a log house in Bragg Creek, Alta., in the Rocky Mountain foothills, where bear, deer and the odd cougar are neighbours. She travels the country a great deal meeting her primary audiences in schools. In fact, we became friends on an author tour in Fort McMurray, Alta., and later connected again when she was launching her book Ghost Messages in Newfoundland. Her presentations are full of interesting anecdotes, humour and passion. And encouragement — lots of that.
Her passion is literacy, kids and Canadian history — the real history, I mean. Which is why writing about the Road Allowance People, also rudely called the Ditch People, is important to her. Literacy has been famously called “the new buffalo” by another Métis author and storyteller, Maria Campbell, the author of several books, including the shocking 1970s memoir Halfbreed.
Outcasts of River Falls is Guest’s fourth historical novel after Belle of Batoche, about the Riel Uprising; Ghost Messages, about laying the first trans-Atlantic cable from Ireland to Newfoundland in 1865; and Secret Signs, set during the Great Depression on the Prairies. Guest has written 13 other books for young readers, including many with sports themes. Several are award-winners. Her settings and characters are uniquely Canadian, which is another reason I enjoy them.
Don’t let the “young adult” label on the novel turn you away from a good read. Do yourself a favour and dig into Outcasts this summer. Maybe start reading it on Canada Day.
This story originally appeared in the May 2013 issue of The Observer with the title “The Road Allowance People.”