Excerpt: The Debt (2)

In advance of the publication of The Debt on September 30, here is a short excerpt:

From the account of Daniel Archibald Cumberland, August 10, 1998:

My name is Daniel Archibald Cumberland. It may be familiar to those of you who studied Canadian history some years ago. I graduated with a PhD, published a number of articles in leading journals and was hard at work on turning my dissertation into a book. I took a postdoc in Saskatoon and made sure to attend all the conferences and gatherings I could, hoping to secure an academic posting somewhere. It was then my life began to go astray.

My work focused on western Canadian history and was typical of the academy at the time. Those of you familiar with Canadian history departments and all their various touchstones will know where my work derived from. And it was derivative, of this I can assure you. Though many told me I was doing bold, cutting edge work, I now can see that this was far from the case. My work was no more remarkable than any hundred other students who worked in the history departments across the country. We all added something to the conversation in our narrow domains, but we only echoed what others had said about history in other places.

I was part of a chorus, while certain that I was singing lead. Yet I understood on some fundamental level that what I was doing was of no consequence to anyone. A pervading sense of dissatisfaction led me to be arrogant and dismissive of anyone I perceived as having anything halfway original to say. I would pick apart their arguments and find flaws in minutiae. How could they have managed the trick of saying something, when I had not, the unvoiced part of my consciousness would ask.

By and large I ignored these doubts and carried on with my work, desperate to be elevated into the academy. What I hoped to do there, I couldn’t say. It was my goal, in and of itself. Life beyond that had no shape or hue.

All that changed when I went to do some research in a lost little corner of southeastern Alberta. Though my work was about the rural working class, I had spent little time among them. Still, I was convinced that I understood the overarching structures that shaped their minds, even as I dismissed those that constrained my own. I am embarrassed now to think of how great a fool I was, in so many ways.

Ostensibly my trip was to interview the editors of the, so-called, history books of the region. Each town had one and they generally consisted of a collection of life stories of all the families in the area. Most of the stories were written by one of the family members and detailed how they had come to the area and their lives there. They were utterly fascinating documents and I was excited to meet the people who had organized and edited, to explore their intentions.

It was during one of these interviews that I first heard of the lost Northwest Mounted Police fort. The fort had been established during the late eighteen hundreds, during the force’s expansion throughout the Northwest Territories. It was intended to be a way station, on the way between Winnipeg and Calgary at the confluence of the South Saskatchewan and Red Deer rivers. The Cypress Hills, the site of the massacre that had led to the formation of the Mounties, was to the south. But after barely two years it was abandoned under mysterious circumstances.

A kindly couple, Bill and Linda Cartwright, who had a ranch with some land near the confluence, told me about the lost fort. I half-listened to what they had to tell me, uninterested in some police post abandoned long before the settlement of the area, which was my period of study and reason for being there. It was the name which attracted my attention: Fort Cumberland. There had been a Cumberland, obviously, whose name had been bestowed upon the place, and I found myself wondering if we might be related in some way.

And so it began. From that tiny spark of curiosity bloomed a conflagration of obsession that consumed me entirely.

We thought when we got your email that you must have been interested in the fort,” Bill Cartwright told me that first day. “You’d be surprised how many people try to find it.”

I admitted I found it surprising, for I could not imagine why anyone would have more than a passing interest in a fort that had been in existence for only two years, and that had been so long abandoned that no trace of it could be found.

Well, it’s no different than you,” Linda said. “Why are you so interested in these history books? You have no connection to anyone in them, but here you are all the same.”

She smiled kindly as she said, but Linda could have no idea the terrible effect her words would have on me. It was as though the veil of my miserable life had been pulled aside. I was not interested in these history books, these stories which I found repetitive and only mildly interesting. The lives of those who lived them were of no consequence to me, unless they slotted within the framework I constructed of the past. These people didn’t understand themselves and what they were doing, but I did, better than they ever could, or so I vainly believed.

But Linda’s words made me realize the truth: I understood nothing of the past. It was utterly dead to me. All these people of whom I wrote in my papers weren’t real, not to me. They were characters in a false drama I was constructing to prove a belabored argument. Once they had been living, breathing things, but they had never seemed so to me.

Worst of all, none of them interested me. Nothing else about my study did either. The endless books and articles on the subject that I would be forever striving to keep pace with, all seemed utterly dreary, to say nothing of my own writing on the matter. The future, the one which I had worked so hard to secure for myself, now horrified me. If I was somehow successful in finding an academic job, I would be miserable, I realized.

Yet I couldn’t just abandon this work, now that I was so close to realizing my dream. It would be the height of foolishness. What to do? I kept on for awhile, interviewing others like Bill and Linda, and returned to Saskatoon to finish the article I was writing. It was painful, agonizing work and I hated every moment of it, despising myself for my cowardice at not abandoning it entirely.

The story of the lost fort—which according to Bill and Linda had been abandoned with little explanation—remained at the back of my mind all the while. At first I tried to dismiss it from my thoughts. There was little of historical consequence, it seemed to me, in an abandoned fort, where nothing of particular interest must have occurred, or else I would have come across it earlier in my studies. But the allure of it proved too much for me.

It was, I must admit, the fact of the fort’s name that drew me to it. I felt a connection with this Cumberland, namesake of the place, as I did with nothing else I studied. It was possible that we might be related. My father had never mentioned having an ancestor who was with the NWMP, or who was important enough to have merited having a fort named after him, but he had no interest in the past, particularly his family’s. The idea of studying the past, as I did, baffled him, and he looked at my profession with something like disdain. That is partly what drew me to my studies in the first place, and what kept me there beyond the point that they offered me any satisfaction. I wanted to prove to him that the world could be explained through the past, and that I could explain it.

Instead, I found that all meaning had gone from everything that I looked at, except this unknown man. Who was he?

The Debt is available now to pre-order

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