Friday, March 20, 2009

Agnes Christina Laut

I have come to know the author below quite well, and highly respect her thoroughness regarding the history that surrounds her stories, many historically true in themselves. A great deal of them involve our region and the early time periods of the fur trade. She makes that time and the people of it come alive. I can't recommend her enough to those wanting to know more about our history...

Agnes Christina Laut was a prolific author of fiction and popular history in the first decades of the twentieth century. Her success can be gauged by the extensive republication of her books during her lifetime and their current availability in most libraries today. She was born in Stanley township, Huron County, Ontario, on 11 February 1871 to John Laut, a merchant from Glasgow, and Eliza George Laut, a daughter of Rev. James George, D.D., vice-principal of Queen's University from 1853 to 1857. When Laut was two years old her family moved to Winnipeg, where the future author became well acquainted with western frontier life. At the age of fifteen she completed normal school, and although she was too young to receive a teaching certificate, she acted as a substitute in a prairie school. Several years of teaching in Winnipeg preceded her enrollment at the University of Manitoba. Because of ill health Laut withdrew after her second year and turned to writing, sending her first articles to the New York Evening Post and the Manitoba Free Press. From 1895 to 1897 the latter employed her as an editorial writer, after which she enjoyed two years of "tramp life," crossing the continent to Newfoundland and contributing articles to American, English, and Canadian periodicals.

Laut's first novel, Lords of the North: A Romance of the Northwest (1900), was an instant success, readily meeting English Canada's desire for a national literature drawing on the country's colorful history and modeled on the fiction of Sir Walter Scott. It dramatizes the struggle between the Hudson's Bay Company and the Northwest Company for control of the northwest fur trade as a contest between two feudal robber barons. The noble characters share a code of chivalry, refusing to yield to "the witching fascinations of a wild life in a wild, free, tameless land"; the Indians represent the threat of raw wilderness to the veneer of civilization. Like its successor, Heralds of Empire: Being the Story of One Ramsay Stanhope, Lieutenant to Pierre Radisson in the Northern Fur Trade (1902), this romantic novel bears evidence of its author's careful research and her desire to enliven Canadian history. The two books share problems of characterization and plot, as well as clumsy archaic diction. Laut's fascination with the past was to find better expression in her many subsequent works of nonfiction.

In 1901 Laut moved to Wassaic, in Upstate New York, for her health and to be nearer her publishers. This was to be her home for the rest of her life, although she continued to spend her summers in the Canadian Rockies and Selkirk Mountains and to write extensively about Canada. Some indication of her financial success can be inferred from her 1902 contract with her Canadian publisher, William Briggs, from whom she could command the high royalty rate of twenty percent for The Story of the Trapper (1902), and from her purchase of Wildwood, her country estate.

Laut's best and best-selling books were (in her own words) intended "To re-create the shadowy figures of the heroic past, to clothe the dead once more in flesh and blood, to set the puppets of the play in life's great dramas again upon the stage of action." Drawing upon her extensive research into published and manuscript sources, including the private records of the Hudson's Bay Company, she reworked the same stories of early North American explorers and fur traders (Radisson and des Groseilliers, La VĂ©rendrye, Hudson, Hearne, Lewis and Clark, Vancouver) into scores of magazine articles which formed the basis of more than a dozen books. Those intended for younger readers include three short books in George M. Wrong and H. H. Langton's Chronicles of Canada series (The "Adventurers of England" on Hudson Bay: A Chronicle of the Fur Trade in the North [1914], Pioneers of the Pacific Coast: A Chronicle of Sea Rovers and Fur Hunters [1915], The Cariboo Trail: A Chronicle of the Gold-fields of British Columbia [1916]) and a 1930 series of three school history texts for the Ryerson Press. Her major works of history for adults include The Story of the Trapper, part of which was later incorporated into The Fur Trade of America (1921), Pathfinders of the West: Being the Thrilling Story of the Adventures of the Men Who Discovered the Great Northwest (1904), Vikings of the Pacific: The Adventures of the Explorers Who Came from the West, Eastward (1905), The Conquest of the Great Northwest: Being the Story of the Adventurers of England Known as the Hudson's Bay Company (1908), and Cadillac, Knight Errant of the Wilderness, Founder of Detroit, Governor of Louisiana from the Great Lakes to the Gulf (1931). The Conquest of the Great Northwest: Being the Story of the Adventurers of England Known as the Hudson's Bay Company was financially "her most satisfactory book," she claimed in 1912.

As a journalist, Laut traveled extensively through the Canadian West and American Southwest, writing about her travels in articles and books which plead the cause of wilderness conservation. A personal, anecdotal style characterizes Through Our Unknown Southwest, the Wonderland of the United States--Little Known and Unappreciated--The Home of the Cliff Dweller and the Hopi, the Forest Ranger and the Navajo--The Lure of the Painted Desert (1913) and Enchanted Trails of Glacier Park (1926), as well as The Romance of the Rails (1929). An outspoken Canadian nationalist, she wrote Canada, the Empire of the North: Being the Romantic Story of the New Dominion's Growth from Colony to Kingdom (1909) to support the popular notion that the twentieth century belonged to Canada. In 1912 her reputation as a national spokesperson led to an assignment from the Toronto-based magazine Saturday Night to investigate labor and racial issues in British Columbia. Her analysis, republished as a pamphlet, Am I my Brother's Keeper (1913), and later included in The Canadian Commonwealth (1915), summarizes some of the prevailing tensions of her era. Social issues continued to concern her, and in 1919 Laut traveled to Mexico as secretary to the Childhood Conservation League. She reported her findings to a Senate subcommittee in Washington.

From a literary point of view, her weakest works are her last three volumes of fiction. The Freebooters of the Wilderness (1910) and The New Dawn (1913), both set in the United States of her own day, are contrived thesis novels. The first supports the efforts of the United States Forest Service to conserve the wilderness against rampant exploitation, while the second denounces the self-interest and underhandedness of both big business and the international labor movement. The Quenchless Light (1924) marks Laut's return to historical fiction, in this case to the time of the early Christian apostles.

Laut's record of publishing success and social action represents the fields of activity that opened to North American women for her generation. Following her death (on 15 November 1936), the American Historical Review (January 1937) opined that her historical writing in particular had "substantial merit." - From the Dictionary of Literary Biography