Every few years, in the service of boosting or gutting public education, someone interviews high school seniors to demonstrate how little Americans know about their own history. Typically, from these studies we learn that Ben Franklin invented lightning or that Noah Webster saved the stars and stripes by collecting them two-by-two on the Arc de Triumph.
Into this dark climate dares come a marvelous historical novel called "Voyageurs." Margaret Elphinstone garnered rave reviews in England last year, but in the American market, her book is a perfect storm for commercial disaster, a combination of conditions and subjects that could sink even the best writer: It's really long; it's set against the most obscure conflict in American history, the War of 1812; it takes place mostly in Canada; and it's narrated by an earnest Quaker.
Fortunately, the British publisher, Canongate, is relatively new to the American market or it might not have had the optimism to release "Voyageurs" here, and we would have missed this rich and moving novel.
Elphinstone presents the story as a manuscript found in the attic of her house during remodeling in 2003. The author of these faded pages was a Englishman named Mark Greenhow, who begins, "I would be content even now were it not for my sister Rachel." And so we're drawn into this tale of reflection and adventure, back to 1809, when Mark and his parents received anxious, infrequent letters about Rachel's missionary work in the most remote forests of Canada.
She was traveling with a devout aunt to spread the Light among the natives, but she fell under the spell of a slick fur trader named Alan McKenzie. When she married him, their Quaker society back home in England disowned her in abstentia, as she knew they would. But the next letter brings even more dire news: After losing her first baby, Rachel wandered into the Canadian wilderness and was never seen again.
For Mark, this disaster culminates a lifelong burden of looking after his strong-willed sister. "She was never one to worry about the way back," he writes. "I knew, though, from early on, that it was my place to worry about it for her. Rachel expected that of me, and so did my parents; indeed, it is what I expected of myself."
A letter from Rachel's husband, Alan, confirms that the case is hopeless, but Mark resolves to make the journey from England to Quebec and then on to the Great Lakes. As he moves into this territory, he also ventures into the thickly grown complexity of sibling affection and resentment.
"I was hugely, furiously angry with Rachel," he realizes one morning, shivering in a damp blanket. "All her life she'd asked me for things. All her life I'd taken what she dealt out. All her life I'd had to accommodate her, to live with her, rescue her, listen to her...." Then he must admit, "But I could never help admiring Rachel too."
Almost all of the book concerns his remarkable, hopeless search for her. Mark covers half of Canada with a team of fur traders, men who paddle 40-foot canoes for 15 hours a day and carry 180-pound packs.
If you're not an American high school senior, you may know that 1812 was a particularly dangerous time to be drifting around the Great Lakes. The United States was locked in a trade war that escalated into a real war against an uneasy alliance of British fur companies and hostile Indians. Amid the sound of war drums, Mark finds himself pursuing his sister in a political climate that's as treacherous as the forests that swallowed her.
His voyage, of course, is both external and internal. "For the first time in my life I was standing on foreign soil," he writes, "and I was no longer sure of anything." His brother-in-law, Alan, is likable but duplicitous, a foil to his own plain-spoken honesty and Quaker ethics. Mark thinks he can move through this land under his brother-in-law's guidance without becoming entangled in Alan's military and financial intrigue, but that proves impossibly naive.
Indeed, many of Mark's principles are tested in this dark wood. Elphinstone has created a humble and courageous hero, a man historically and culturally remote, but strikingly relevant to our own age of war. What's particularly wonderful about "Voyageurs" is the chance to linger in the company of someone struggling with his faith, his responsibilities to others and to God. And the modern irony that could have spiked this story remains at bay, even while touches of archaic diction render him all the more authentic.
Confronted by warriors who torture their prisoners to death and soldiers from both sides who suspect spies everywhere, Mark finds his Quaker pacifism much harder to maintain than it was back on the farm in England. "I fear that I am no more than half a man," he writes, "having not the courage of my convictions."
Slowly, he develops a broader sense of God's expression in the world. From the Indians, he learns to explore the mystical elements of his own faith tradition. And though he can be something of a humorless prig (the list of great Quaker comics is short), he eventually lets down his guard and experiments with a variety of small abominations, such as storytelling, poetry, music, and even humming (egads!). Like President Clinton, he smokes, but doesn't inhale; unlike President Clinton, he takes advantage of a young woman, but confesses sincerely.
Ultimately, Mark doesn't find what he hoped for, but he doesn't fail in the way he feared he might. Through it all, he's so disarmingly honest that his whole story, told in this plain and simple style, serves as an arresting antidote for our own time, so hopelessly opposed to quiet reflection. A long book is always a risky trek into uncharted territory, but this is a guide worth following.
• Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments about the book section to Ron Charles.