Travelling to Ontario in 1804, the MacCallums and fourteen other Scottish families have great hopes for a new life. They are ill-prepared for Baldoon, an unstable tract of land on the swampy north shore of Lake St. Clair featuring downpours, flooding, malarial fever, and only three half-built cabins. Mother, father, and sister succumb to sickness, leaving five ill-equipped MacCallum children to eke out existence in a tent. Hugh, eighteen, is now head of the family and Isobel, a sixteen-year-old, de facto mother to three girls. But this is fourteen-year-old Flora’s story, and the author delves deep inside her adolescent mind, revealing hopes, fears, and heart-breaking loneliness. Life is perilous and cold, food is scarce, but Flora finds solace in the rugged beauty of the wilderness and the abundance of wildlife.
Niigaani, a young Ojibwe emissary, befriends Hugh, and tribal permission is granted for the family to overwinter in a cabin on Indian land, dry at least. Niigaani teaches Flora the Anishinaabe language, telling of his culture, way of life, and a history that echoes with years of lies, empty promises, confiscated land, and broken treaties. Similarities between the Scots and their native counterparts are startling; the marked difference is that the Indians have adapted their nomadic existence to climate, environment, flora and fauna. Although Niigaani’s visits are purely innocent, Flora’s request that he not tell Hugh sets off a chain reaction, putting the family at odds with each other, the settlers, and their Indigenous neighbours.
Flora’s coming-of-age is a gold mine of splendidly researched information about the hardships presented by a feral land, and native tribal customs and culture—a must-read for everyone interested in Canadian Indigenous history. A specific map of the region would be welcome. The Baldoon experiment was a historical disaster, but the author ends her tale on a hopeful note. A remarkable love song to Indigenous peoples.