|George O’Connor, Journey into Mohawk Country (First Second, 2006); $19.95|
By Beth Hewitt
As someone with a passionate fondness for reading about colonial American economic history, I knew I would love George O’Connor’s Journey into Mohawk Country. The more substantial question was whether anyone else would. The novel, after all, takes as its text the 1634 travel diary of Harmen Meyndertsz Van den Bogaert, an employee of the Dutch West India Company. Van den Bogaert describes his two-month journey from Fort Orange, New York (what is now Albany) north and westward in an effort to reassert Dutch predominance in the beaver pelt trade with the Iroquois tribes, which had been increasingly threatened by French traders. Although the text is a treasure trove of information—depicting the houses and food stuffs of the various tribes of the Iroquois nation with whom Van den Bogaert trades—for the most part, the narrative reads as most seventeenth-century travel diaries do. It is a laconic and straightforward account of daily occurrences: how far they walked, what they ate, what the weather was like. Only occasionally does the text turn to the fantastical adventure we might expect from something titled Journey into Mohawk Country (notably this is not the title of the 17th century publication), as when we see the ritual healing of two doctors “called Sunachkoes” which culminates in them vomiting all over the sick man’s body.
More typical, however, is the entry from the next day, where we learn that Van den Bogaert is given two pieces of bear meat and then travels through a birch stand in a blizzard. But O’Connor makes the wise decision to use the 17th century text verbatim, and indeed refers to Van den Bogaert as his collaborator in both the title page and afterward to the novel. Part of this decision was clearly a consequence of O’Connor’s historical agenda: he wanted to give readers access to this moment in early New York history by way of a primary document. But no small degree of O’Connor’s purpose was also to afford him an opportunity to construct his own more periphrastic visual narratives grounded in the matter-of-fact prose of his 17th century collaborator. Consequentially, reading the novel is like reading two stories at once, since O’Connor both illustrates Van den Bogaert’s and draws his own narratives at the same time. We see this, for example, when we read Van den Bogaert’s description that “nothing in particular happened other than I was shown some stones with which they make fire.” This assessment, located in two small text boxes on the page, is surrounded by a 12-panel page which slowly and deliberately reveals our narrator smugly watching this other method before attempting and failing to use his own flint to start his own fire, and finally focusing on his bemused recognition of the possibility of this other technology.
Likewise, towards the end we see the burgeoning romance between another Dutch trader in Van den Bogaert’s party and a Mohawk woman (who returns with them to Fort Orange). This story is O’Connor’s invention insofar as there is no mention of it in the 17th century narrative, and, indeed, in the pages that depict their courtship. It’s almost as if, to represent his departure from the text, O’Connor locates the written narrative on banners that casually wave sometimes even out of the border of the frame into the gutter. And yet the remarkable accomplishment of the book is that such moments do not feel artificial. I’m not even entirely sure why this is the case, since despite the inherent realism built into the text, he chooses a fanciful comic-strip style. His Dutch trader looks a lot like a cross between Gary Trudeau’s Zonker and Berberian and Dupuy’s Monsieur Jean. Somehow, however, the illustrations—in a muted palette of oranges, brown, and blues (splendidly done by Hilary Sycamore)—represents for us the leisurely pace and quiet introspection that we feel Van den Bogaert would have offered if only he had time.