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A colonial adventure in Mohawk Valley

Into the wild: A Slightly Foxed books essay

October 22, 2019

1:38 PM

22 October 2019

1:38 PM

You should never camp in a ravine. Look for higher ground, and a windbreak — a fallen tree is fine, but rocks are the best. Gather balsam wood for bedding, and use your tomahawk to cut firewood from a dead tree. Make two fires. Set the bigger one against the rocks for warmth, and spread the ashes of the smaller one over the ground you wish to sleep on — they will stop it being so cold and damp. Catch fish from the river, but keep an eye out for Indians moving silently through the forest on moccasined feet.

This much I have learnt from Ronald Welch’s Mohawk Valley. I just wish I had read it as a boy, for it would have furnished my bivouacking trips in the woods with a far greater level of detail. I would not have depended so much on being a cowboy, an Indian, a Viking. I could have been Alan Carey, learning how to live as a backwoodsman in America in the 1750s. I would not have made sticks into swords or revolvers but into muskets, and I would have practiced reloading while lying on my side. I would have done things properly.

Ronald Welch has a knack for extraordinary detail and rapid pace; he is the perfect adventure companion. He was a history teacher, and each of the novels in his Carey family series is meticulously researched, though that research never gets in the way of the story. Mohawk Valley begins in a smoke-filled room in Cambridge, England, where we’re introduced to Alan, a tall, clumsy mammoth of a man who doesn’t quite fit in with his card-playing peers.

The events of that night decide his future: there’s a dispute over marked cards, and Alan gets blamed. In the morning, he must duel with his accuser, Harry Napier. Despite his bulk, Alan is terrified and in a moment of extreme nerves he drops the long-barreled dueling pistol. Still, he’s caught by the university proctor and sent down from Cambridge. He travels in shame back to Llanstephan, the family home in Wales, where his father the Earl of Aubigny will require an explanation. He thinks he is ruined, but his father has a task for him. He is to sail for Boston and then to inspect the family’s estates in the American hinterland.

There he makes friends with Jake, a swarthy, straight-talking backwoodsman. Together they ride to the Earl’s estate of Ashwater, on the Mohawk River, and Jake teaches Alan how to fell trees and track deer and avoid getting lost in the woods. Alan swaps his uncomfortable London clothes for buckskins, and as they prepare to head out to the forest, he receives more advice:

‘Say, listen, Mister Carey,’ Jake said. ‘Never go into the forest without flint and tinder, a sheath knife, a tomahawk and a water bottle. And your gun, powder flask and bullets.’

It is the perfect packing list and it makes me want to leave immediately for a night in the woods. Indeed, I became so immersed in their adventure that I was sure I could smell wood smoke on the pages of the library copy I first read. Perhaps some other borrower had taken it on an adventure of their own, reading it aloud around the campfire.

Alan and Jake are uneasy companions at first. Jake sees Alan as a soft, ignorant aristocrat, and Alan feels clumsy and out of his depth in the backwoods. But when Alan saves Jake from drowning, they form a close bond based on all the qualities you’ll find in Welch heroes: trust, courage, respect and competence.

Alan learns far more from Jake than he ever did at Cambridge and becomes a strong, confident woodsman. Halfway through the book, we find him felling a tree:

‘He wore buckskin trousers, and the sleeves of his coarse, thick shirt were rolled up above his elbows. The sun had scorched and tanned his face to a deep brown, and his black hair was tied loosely behind his head. There was little trace of the elegantly dressed and nervous young man of fashion who had boarded the Henrietta at Bristol two and a half years ago.’

All the shame of his departure from Cambridge has slipped into distant memory. Until, that is, Harry Napier arrives on his doorstep in the uniform of an army officer. The war in Europe between France and Britain has spread to America, and Alan must fight the French upriver, at Ticonderoga and Quebec. The book shifts gear, and Alan is drawn deeper and deeper into the conflict. He and Napier have a run-in with the ‘Algonkin’ Indians — a terrifyingly close brush with death — and Welch captures the lopsided nature of the contest between the English forces and the Algonquin. It is a question of immense firepower against the stealth and skill of moving without a sound through the woods. The difficulty of taking hundreds of troops in full uniform through the forest is masterfully described — as is Alan’s berserk rage that gives him the strength to save himself and Harry from captivity and certain death.

The question of courage and cowardice recurs throughout the book. Alan is a towering hero but he is also often very frightened. From the first terrible moment of the duel to his triumphant role in the battle for Quebec, when he leads a dangerous assault up the cliffs to the Plains of Abraham, he is always negotiating an inner struggle. The memory of cowardice is imprinted on his mind, recalled vividly at each moment where he is challenged. He discovers that courage is not the same as fearlessness. It is, rather, the management of fear, and the devotion to his friends around him, that stop his legs shaking. This inner tension brings him alive on the page — he may be over six foot tall, with the strength of three men, but he knows all the emotional turmoil of anyone who must do something they’d really rather not do.

Perhaps this is what makes Welch’s stories so brilliant — they are at once full of adventure, precise historical detail and a broad range of emotions; each chapter is tightly packed, stripped to the essentials. In Mohawk Valley the prose glides like a Mohawk through the forest, light on its feet, deadly in its precision, vividly conjuring up the smells and sounds of the woods, the chaos of battle, and the hardship and contentment of life on the edge of wilderness.

Ronald Welch’s Mohawk Valley is available in a limited and numbered cloth-bound hardback Slightly Foxed Cubs edition of 2,000 copies ($25 including worldwide shipping). See: www.foxedquarterly.com


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