Orphans of Empire

Three very different ways to make a go of it in the early days of British Columbia

Buday, Grant. Orphans of Empire. Brindle & Glass, 2020.

This book is a bit of a change of scenery for this blog, in that it is fiction, it takes place mostly on the mainland but with enough Victoria references that if you care to question me I will happily challenge you to a duel, it takes place in the 19th century (hence, the duel), and it is not primarily about trees or sea creatures. Orphans of Empire is a briskly paced, easy-to-read novel about the site of the New Brighton Hotel on the shores of the Burrard Inlet in the mid-to-late 1800s. 

The three intersecting storylines blur at their edges creating a feeling of peering through a historical kaleidoscope with the New Brighton hotel at the centre. First, there is Sir Richard Clement Moody and his long-suffering wife and children. He arrives in British Columbia, works closely with a number of historical figures who are neck deep in the toxic muck of imperialism and colonization. Here, through Moody, Begbie, and Douglas we see the messes created by the men who we continue to name our buildings and streets after. When Moody got foot fungus while living in a tent trying to clear the (stolen) land for a capital city in New Westminster I must say I was pleased. 

Next, comes the most intriguing timeline. Frisadie was an eighteen year old Hawaiian housemaid who came to British Columbia when her father was lured to the province to work for the Hudson’s Bay Company. (Note: this book is the first time I have heard of the community of Hawaiians who lived and worked in British Columbia in the 19th century.) I was endlessly intrigued by the historical details of Frisadie’s life. She purchases the New Brighton Hotel and quickly whips it into shape with an undeserving Frenchman, Maxie, who proves himself of little use or character. 

The third timeline comes after Frisadie’s unfortunate loss of the hotel (no spoilers here, you’ll have to read it yourself). The hotel is under new management and a young embalmer arrives, moves into a tree stump, and tries to court the lady of the house through roller skating. Again, you’ll just have to find out for yourself.

Orphans of Empire is the perfect title for the stories of this intriguing cast of characters living at what seemed, to them at least, the edge of the world. Our orphans gamble on new lives against the backdrop of the founding of British Columbia where the sharp edges and perennial consequences of their settling is never far from view.

FTWL: The fusses and foibles of historical figures, imagining British Columbia before most of the big trees were chopped down, fighting over where the capital should go.

Places mentioned: New Westminster, New Brighton, Burrard Inlet, Victoria

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