A remarkable woman, and her book about a remarkable woman

I’ve decided that I really want to read Marie-Anne: The Extraordinary Life of Louis Riel’s Grandmother.

Talk about an amazing, interesting woman! So many facets to her life, so many interesting pursuits!

Oh – did you think I was talking about Marie-Anne, the grandmother? Actually, I was thinking of the book’s author herself, Maggie Siggins. This past Monday, at Innis Town Hall, the University of Toronto Reading Series presented her new book, and Ms. Siggins read from it for a bit, and then chatted about it with Canadian historian Christopher Moore.

Boy, does Maggie Siggins love western Canadian history! Sure, she’s just moved back to Toronto after 20+ years living in Regina, and considers Toronto her true home, but she expects she’s always going to write mostly about western Canada. She thinks people had to be “pretty eccentric” to go out into that wilderness and try to live there, and “Ontario history is so boring by comparison…the Family Compact and all that…”

So after writing and producing several documentary films, a book that was turned into a TV program, and nine or so books on Canadian history, including the life of Riel himself, Ms. Siggins began to think that perhaps some of Riel’s family influenced him during his last few years. Marie-Anne Lagimodiere, his maternal grandmother, was a shadowy figure in his letters, and when Ms. Siggins started looking into the woman’s own life, she found a person with an extraordinary story all her own.

Marie-Anne was probably the very first Euro-Quebec woman who not only married one of the rugged men who travelled two years at a time into the wilds of western Canada, but who in fact moved out there to live with him, rather than staying at home in Quebec to await his short, bi-yearly visits. Moving from a very genteel life in Quebec to the rugged rural life she lived in the Red River Valley as well as Fort Edmonton, Marie-Anne showed incredible strength, adaptability, and resiliency. She lived to be 96 (an amazing feat in itself), and had eight children, all of whom survived and themselves achieved old age. If Louis Riel got nothing else from her, he surely inherited her strength and spirit.

But what brought Marie-Anne to life at Monday’s event wasn’t the words on the page (since I haven’t read them yet); rather it was Maggie Siggins’ enthusiasm, empathy, and intimate knowledge of the woman’s history. To listen to Ms. Siggins read and speak was to open a door into the inner mind and heart of Marie-Anne Lagimodiere. Siggins thoroughly researched this person’s life, and no matter what questions Christopher Moore or an audience member asked, she could answer with considerable authority. She made Marie-Anne live for us: we could see the woman’s confusion about the woman in the wigwam next door, sense the tension when the various forts were fighting each other, and feel the distress as people in the disastrous Selkirk settlement began to die.

If Maggie Siggins could make Marie-Anne’s history so vivid for the audience in just an hour’s chat, imagine what she’s been able to do in an entire book! So yes…I definitely want to read this book.


[See my other review of the same evening, over at the Bookishgal blog: Louis Riel had to get it from somewhere… ]

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