Wacousta; Or, The Prophecy: A Tale of the Canadas by Major John Richardson is the first great, and perhaps least read, landmark of English Canadian literature. First published in London and Edinburgh in 1832, Wacousta is a ripping wilderness gothic mystery romance full of plot twists, gore and sweeping intertwining of family and continental history. The drama of the story has inspired a number of stage productions.
The Publishing History of Wacousta
Wacousta went through a bewildering range of titles and editions - authorised and unauthorised - before the first Canadian edition, published at Montréal in 1868, a year after the Canadas were joined by confederation with New Brunswick and Nova Scotia to form the singular Canada. The first Canadian edition was titled Wacousta; Or, The Prophecy: An Indian Tale. There have been a number of editions published over the last century and a half. All but one have been more or less abridged and corrupt compared to the first British edition. In 1987 the Centre for Editing Early Canadian Texts (CEECT) published a definitive scholarly edition of the novel. This edition is the only one which allows a true appreciation of the complexity and sweep of Richardson's narrative.
The Story of Wacousta
Wacousta is set during a short period of 1763 while Pontiac, chief of the Ottawas, laid siege to the British forts at Detroit and Michilimackinac. These few weeks are the immediate setting of the story, but the patient quest for revenge by the mysterious warrior Wacousta draws the reader back to events in England and Scotland early in the century, to the Battle of the Plains of Abraham at Québec, where France lost North America to Britain in 1759, and foreshadows the siege and capture of Detroit by the British in the War of 1812. Since Wacousta is in part a mystery story, with exciting plot twists, action and surprises, it would be unfair to provide a complete plot summary. In bare outline, the warrior Wacousta, advisor to Pontiac and something of a superman, feels himself to have been extremely wronged years before by De Haldimar, commander of the British at Detroit. Wacousta has chosen to enjoy his vengeance with great patience and ingenuity, inflicting his pain on his adversary by destroying De Haldimar's children one by one.
The Legacy of Wacousta
Although generally recognised as the first great Canadian novel in English, Wacousta is seldom read today outside of college classrooms. It is a double irony that the novel is largely set in territory outside Canada and that it has from its first publication been far more popular in the world beyond Canada than it has been at home. This lack of popularity in Canada is unfortunate for a number of reasons. Most importantly, Wacousta is a truly great read. Of less importance is its place at the start of English Canadian literature: if Wacousta had been a major influence on the Canadian novels that followed it, it would be vital for anyone wanting to understand later works. Wacousta does, however, retain a great relevance to an understanding of Canada today: nowhere else is the interwoven history of the founding nations of Canada so vividly communicated than it is in Wacousta. British, French, American, and First Nations cultures are brought together and synthesised in a single character: Wacousta, veteran of the Plains of Abraham, English nobleman, warrior of the Ottawas.
The e-text of Wacousta
Wacousta is available from Project Gutenberg.