by Rachel More
Margaret Lindsay Holton’s Trillium
Trillium by Margaret Lindsay Holton is a book that is steeped in both geography and history. A very specific, very localized geography and history. Trillium chronicles the history of the Niagara Peninsula and European settlement and development here. From the first sentence “Clinging tightly to the huge boulder half way down the falls Tom watched the water cascade past him into the churning gorge below.” it is clear that landscape and natural power loom large (oftentimes literally) over the lives of Holton’s characters.
And well it should. The founding myth of settler Canada is that of a country literally hewn from forest and granite and transformed into a paradise – one of the ‘breadbaskets of the world’ and a fertile and productive region for wine. That this is a myth cannot be overstated. The last 10 years have seen a radical shift in how we talk about the colonial period and the white men and women who came here from Europe and transmogrified the land to suit themselves, at the expense of the non-white men and women who were already here. In a post-Truth and Reconciliation society perhaps Holton’s most surprising literary choice is the lack of racial tension which characterizes the opening section of Trillium. Young Tom Hartford, a British soldier in what would come to be known (to Anglo-Canadians at least) as the French & Indian War, is a model 18th-century man. His best friend is the Iroquois trader Maakadegaagwan, known as Maaka, and the most problematic thought that Tom has is that he would prefer to marry a white woman “He would prefer to take a wife from his own kind, preferably with a woman who could read and write and teach their children.” Later, when Makka’s customs make Tom’s new (Scottish) wife uncomfortable Tom assures her that “Maaka was the best there ever could be” and he continues to defend his friendship with Maaka in the face of increasing community pressure to segregate from the indigenous people. Eventually though, Maaka stops coming around and Tom cheerfully accepts this as he cheerfully accepts almost everything else that happens.
But just as Canadian history doesn’t end with the English victory at the Plains of Abraham, Trillium doesn’t end with Tom Hartford peacefully living out his days on his Twenty Valley peach farm. Holton’s mandate is wide-ranging and no sooner has the story of Tom Hartford the first drawn to a close than she introduces us to another young man, aspiring to a better life, awestruck by the majesty of his new country. Francesco DiAngelo arrives in Hamilton from Sicily by merchant steamer in 1835. His first view of the city highlights a rapidly-changing Canada, juxtaposing “the bustling shoreline” with the “escarpment-protected port at the end of this long freshwater open lake”. The meaning is clear: this is a natural setting for the ingenuity and industry of human beings and the land will reward those who adapt to and exploit it most judiciously. Francesco is one of those who will profit by the land, at least in this era, because his love of growing things makes him a natural fit as a picker on the Hartford farm (now owned by Tom’s grandson, Tom Hartford III). “To him this wasn’t work, it was play. It was soil. It was home. His hands became chaffed from dirt and his fingernails became permanently blackened with grit. He dug in deeper. He didn’t mind. He could feel the sun on his back and hear the birds in the orchards. He could literally see the fruit of his own labour. In September, he ate two perfect peaches from the first tree he had picked.” Despite his lack of English and his suspect Italian origins, Franco is embraced by the thoroughly Anglo Hartfords in the first of many intersections between characters throughout the centuries.
Holton’s book does indeed span centuries. Words like ‘panoramic’ or ‘multi-generational’ or even ‘saga’ would apply. It is to her credit that she has looked at the history and demographics of wine country and seen fertile ground (pun intended) for the kind of sprawling family-history story made famous by authors like Isabel Allende and Gabriel Garcia Marquez; though Holton’s novel doesn’t feature the kind of precious magical realism that also typifies those writers. Instead her magic is more prosaic but no less effective. The opening section of Trillium, “Seeds” introduces both Tom the first and Franco as well as a third young man with big dreams. Paddy O’Sullivan’s ambitions lead him down a far different path than either of the others, with him becoming a ‘swell’ and most likely a petty criminal as well as a shrewd and corrupt businessman (he will eventually become involved with Hartford Fruit Farm through a shady land deal that seems Tom’s descendants leasing land that Paddy has acquired). Tom, Franco, and Paddy are the seeds that Holton grows her story from and like the grapevines that story grows strong and wild. The Hartford, DiAngelo, and O’Sullivan family’s fates are inextricably intertwined all the way up to the end of the 20th century and the novel does not lack for dramatic events. In fact, all of the plot described so far covers less than a quarter of Trillium. The magic is that Holton never confuses the reader (even with multiple characters named, say, Tom Hartford) and she never loses the sense of the terrain being a character as much as any of the humans. As I wrote in the beginning of this review, this is a novel in which history and geography are the twin engines driving the story forward. Trillium could not be set anywhere but the Niagara peninsula and this specificity is a strength, as is Holton’s gift for capturing each historical period in detail without losing sense of the larger whole.
As Trillium so aptly demonstrates even familiar territory can contain multitudes worth examining. Her Southern Ontario tale is full of intriguing characters with stories to tell and they are lucky to be the products of a well-seasoned teller of tales. Trillium is well worth the attention of anyone who lives in the Niagara peninsula and anyone who doesn’t but still likes quality historical fiction.
Rachel More is an artist living and working in Hamilton Ontario. This summer she will be exploring a great deal of Southern Ontario as Production Manager for the National Academy Orchestra and the Brott Music Festival.