Barry McDivitt’s young adult novel Redcoats and Renegades is a tale of thrilling adventure, made all the more interesting because it is based on true events. It follows the story of Hamlet Hamlin, who claims to be the first person the Mounties ever arrested. As a young pickpocket, Hamlet falls under the ‘renegades’ side of the title, but ends up joining the Mounties, semi-voluntarily, on their march West.
At the time of this story-the early 1870s-the North West Mounted Police was still young. It was created after the purchase of the Northwest Territories from the Hudson’s Bay Company. The Mounties were charged with protecting the First Nations people from American whiskey and fur traders, and at the same time establishing a stronger Canadian presence in the newly-acquired land. The Mounties faced opposition not just from the Americans, but from Sioux and Blackfoot as well. Many characters, Hamlet included, express their doubt in the ability of the Mounties to bring order to the lawless West, expecting them to be massacred instead.
Hamlet’s perspective is fresh and entertaining. He sees the ridiculousness of some of the Mounties’ preparations, including carrying agricultural equipment and lances, but also exclaims in admiration when seeing the redcoats for the first time. The Mounties were lost for a good period of the expedition, and McDivitt paints a vivid picture of the heat, cold, bugs, thunderstorms, and multiple horse stampedes which they were forced to deal with.
The expedition encounters many colourful characters, including whiskey traders, American soldiers, outlaws, Sioux warriors and Métis. Many of these characters, like Sam Steele and Jerry Potts, were real people. Hamlet’s interactions with them are often quite humorous, and peppered with interesting slang. A preacher is a ‘sin-buster’, and a character who nearly drowns is said to have been almost ‘baptized all the way to heaven’.
Hamlet travels with the Mounties across the Prairies through many familiar places, including Fort Dufferin and the “remote outpost” of Fort Edmonton, all the way to Fort Whoop-up. McDivitt skillfully inserts passages placing Hamlet’s story in a wider historical context, weaving together fact and fiction. Readers will come away much more knowledgeable about Canada’s history, having learned about it in the most enjoyable and entertaining way possible.
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