Books

Read an excerpt from RBC Taylor Prize finalist Bush Runner by Mark Bourrie

The $30K prize recognizes the best in Canadian literary nonfiction. The winner will be announced on March 2, 2020.
Bush Runner is a nonfiction book by Mark Bourrie. (Douglas & McIntyre, Biblioasis)

Bush Runner by historian and journalist Mark Bourrie is a finalist for the 2020 RBC Taylor Prize.

The $30,000 prize recognizes the best in Canadian literary nonfiction.

Bush Runner is the story of explorer and Hudson Bay Company founder Pierre-Esprit Radisson. Radisson's life is remarkable: he was kidnapped by Mohawk warriors, witnessed London's great plague and great fire, survived a shipwreck, was marooned with pirates and proved to be a shrewd adventurer, trader and businessperson. 

Bourrie has written several books about history. His other books include The Killing Game, a book about ISIS, Fighting Words, about Canadian war reporting, and The Fog of War, about media censorship during the Second World War.

The other finalists are:

The winner will be revealed on March 2, 2020. 

It was announced in November that 2020 will be the last year for the prize, which has been given out since 2000.

Bourrie was on CBC Radio's As It Happens to discuss Bush Runner.

You can read an excerpt from Bush Runner  below.


Radisson, after a year of living through the Great Plague and the Great Fire of London, must have wondered why he had defected to the English. Their country was in awful straits. The young new king had been on the throne for just six years after a decade of revolutionary governments and it seemed like he had brought nothing but bad luck to his capital. England was losing wars against its neighbours. The ruling classes lived in fear of political and religious factionalism that could easily escalate to a new civil war. London was full of plague orphans and people left homeless by the Great Fire. Things wouldn't be that bad again until the Second World War.

Pierre-Esprit Radisson (Submitted by Mark Bourrie/Biblioasis)

Not only did Radisson have every right to be depressed, he also had good reason to be paranoid. In his case, people really were out to get him. Radisson and Groseilliers were the focus of espionage directed at the highest levels of three governments: those of France, Holland and England.

The Dutch were likely fed information by the French ambassador to The Hague, who was a friend of Paul Ragueneau, the former leader of the Jesuit missions to the Hurons and the Iroquois. Ragueneau had been dogging Groseilliers for years, trying to thwart his plans. Ragueneau was sure Groseilliers was a traitor, a cannibal and probably a heretic. Radisson, Ragueneau believed, was just as bad as Groseilliers: an ingrate who had been saved by the Society of Jesus and was now out to ruin Jesuit plans to trade on Hudson Bay to raise money for their missionary work. The secret agent dispatched to London by the Dutch was a French spy, Godefroy Touret, who had worked for France for a decade in the town of Maestricht, and somehow knew Groseilliers. 

The Dutch and their (temporary) French business allies seemed to have targeted Groseilliers as the less intelligent, most treacherous, and more gullible of the pair. The spy had chosen the right target. Touret pumped Groseilliers for information, then offered the Frenchman a Dutch passport and passage to the Netherlands as a guest of their effective ruler, Johann de Witt. 

Radisson and Groseilliers were the focus of espionage directed at the highest levels of three governments: those of France, Holland and England.- Mark Bourrie

Touret passed himself off to people living in the ruins of London as Groseilliers' nephew, a fraud that Groseilliers discovered with some horror. Radisson, always more aware and suspicious than his reckless brother-in-law, could see Touret was living far beyond his obvious income. Still, Grosielliers and Touret kept talking. Subsequent events cut their plans short. English government spies had noticed this curious foreigner. Near the end of the year, English agents picked up Touret and lodged him in one of London's unpleasant jails — an old gate of the city, surrounded by rubble from the fire — but they couldn't get much out of him, at least at first.

Touret's arrest put Groseilliers — "Captain Gooseberries" in some of the records of the case — in a bind. He got out of it his usual way, by betraying Touret, claiming he had known all along Touret was a spy, and insisting he never seriously considered defecting to the Dutch. Groseilliers even managed to find a few witnesses to back up his story. But four months locked in the old Gatehouse jail on the ancient city wall convinced Touret that he had to develop a better strategy than trying to remain silent. London, during and after the fire, was a tough place for any foreigner under the slightest suspicion of disloyalty to the English, which was why Groseilliers was working so hard to extricate himself from this mess. Touret decided to turn Crown witness, or, to be more precise, Crown perjurer.

According to Touret, Groseilliers had a devious masterplan to set up his own fur empire, start minting his own coins in the New World, and use this weird money to buy furs from the Cree in Hudson Bay. (What use they would make of these coins was unexplained, and unexplainable.) Touret claimed to have extracted information from Groseilliers' servant — a man named Moreau who had supposedly lived in Canada — that Groseilliers had told his wife that he would soon return to her and they'd spend the rest of their lives in great wealth. Then Touret came up with a story that could have sent Groseilliers to the gallows: The Frenchman, Touret said, had hidden a fugitive priest in London. This priest, on the lam from a convent in Lyon, was supposed to have fled France with 50,000 stolen ecus (in those days a coin about the size of an old American silver dollar). Not only was the priest a rather skilled thief, he was also a counterfeiter, and it was this disreputable phantom clergyman who had the skills to create the coins that Groseilliers planned to use to build his independent fur empire. Touret had met the priest and heard the whole story from him. Touret accused Groseilliers of three capital crimes — counterfeiting, harboring a fugitive, and sheltering a Catholic priest. Groseilliers must have been terrified. 

(The English didn't believe this story, but they did have some fun with it.)

From Bush Runner by Mark Bourrie ©2019. Published by Biblioasis.

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