Pilgrimage, by Edmonton author Diana Davidson begins on New Year’s Eve 1891, and spans a little over a year at the Lac Ste. Anne mission in Northern Alberta. It follows the lives of three women: Makhesîs Cardinal, a young Métis woman raised at Lac Ste. Anne; Moira, an Irish lass transplanted to Alberta; and Georgina Barrett, the wife of James Barrett, the Hudson Bay Company store manager.
Makehsîs is tasked with keeping house for Barrett until his wife arrives at the settlement. The job turns sour, though, when Barrett, displaying a ruthless lack of self-control, takes what he wants, when he wants it. Makhesîs becomes pregnant and must leave his employ to save her reputation.
Georgina Barrett arrives from Ireland bearing a trunk full of secrets hidden among unsuitable fancy dresses and frippery. She detests the wild, northern landscape, and her high and mighty attitude does her no favours when making friends. She is a schemer, always looking for the angle that best suits herself. Georgina is set on cementing her husband to her side, as she knows this frontier isn’t a place she can survive on her own.
Moira is an Irish employee Georgina brought along to keep house. She is open to the new country and wants to learn the ways of the people she meets at Lac Ste. Anne. She is well-liked by the elderly and children, and moves easily between the different factions at Lac Ste. Anne, whether Métis or priests or white settlers. Her connection with the place is secured when she falls in love with Gabriel, Makesîs’s brother.
While Pilgrimage is a story of women in an unkind time, Gabriel Cardinal is the linchpin around which many of the events turn. Gabriel’s actions impact all three women in different ways. His story also affords a glimpse into the bleak and beautiful life of a Métis man of the era. Davidson’s ability to incorporate detailed, well-researched history into the plot really shines in the sections where we see Gabriel away, working to make enough money to forge a life with Moira.
Circumstances as bitter and unforgiving as a Northern winter push the characters of Pilgrimage together, and pull them apart. Makhesîs and Moira each find a love that transcends the harsh and dangerous times they live in, but it’s that very brutality that serves as their undoing.
Lac Ste. Anne itself is a powerful symbol in the novel, a gathering place of renewal. Moira and Gabriel finally come together near the lake, and its healing waters become a place of solace that ultimately calls both Gabriel and Makhesîs home.
Davidson’s Pilgrimage is a stunning novel that recreates a wild and grim Canada, a time rife with sexism and racism, a time that has been re-written and re-imagined by historians and scholars over the years. Davidson has masterfully turned the tables on these historical “facts” by using them create a fictional world more real than the one found in any history book.