The novel, Black Robe, by Brian Moore is a story about a young Jesuit priest sent into the wilds to convert a remote tribe of Huron Indians before the oncoming winter closes his window of opportunity to reach them. The reader is shown what everyday life is like in a long since past world when the Indian still roamed and controlled the Americas. Despite its fictional nature, Black Robe provides us with further insight into this time than primary source documents of the day.
The story begins in colonial Quebec: the reader is presented with a vivid description of what the city probably looked like when it was still a small settlement still perched on the brink of an untamable wilderness. We see this colony through the eyes of those who live there. The description leaves a perfect view of Quebec in the readers minds eye. As the story proceeds, Father Laforgue meets the Indians whom he will be travelling with. With each time that an Indian speaks, we get a better idea of their language and culture.Order now
We are shocked at first at their vulgarity, but the reader eventually realizes that the supposed dirty words carry a different weight in the Indian tongue. This is a very good, if startling demonstration of the fact that the Indians and the white man have very different ideas of manners and conduct. Through the book, the reader learns the intricacies of Indian conduct, ranging from the fact that one must sit when one is going to parley to the lack of farewells and greetings for strangers.
On the journey which Father Laforgue makes we learn more about Indian spirituality. The text tells us about Indian Animism, where everything has a soul, right down to the smallest blade of grass. Black Robe offers a plausible explanation as to why the cultures of the Native Americans and the Europeans were completely incompatible. This sort of in depth acquaintance with Indian culture is rare (if at all existent) in any primary source from the same period and location.
The fundamental problem with primary sources written from this time period as pointed out by Jane Tompkins Indians is that they are written to convey a certain point of view. This author experienced this problem while trying to write a concrete account of what had happened between Native Americans and European Colonists. Tompkins found that the accounts from various people about the same thing often differed drastically. This sort of contradiction poses a problem for one trying to find a common story to fit all of these wildly differing testimonies.
When writing historical fiction, the setting and the major events are generally true to life. The only thing that is left to fiction is the actual plot itself. This gives the author a bit more latitude in deciding what certain people were really like. This is quite unlike the Tompkins situation and the situation of most historians: they must find a theme that fits all accounts. Their job is not to evaluate the accounts they must incorporate, but to incorporate the most accounts possible into one coherent report.
The advantage goes clearly to the fictional authors, who have the ability to weed out the truly outlandish testimonies. Tompkins encountered moments in her research that she had two completely opposite accounts. One such occasion is when a minister, Alexander Whitaker, wrote that the Indians were puppets of the devil, and that they esteem it a virtue to lie, deceive and steale as their master the divell teacheth to them. This account can be explained by the fact that the minister wanted to motivate his audience into converting the Indians to Christianity.
The opposite side comes from William Wood, who stated that If it were possible to recount the courtesies they have showed the English, since their first arrival in those parts, it would not only steady belief, that they are a loving people, but also win the love of those who never saw them His motivation was the encouragement of people in Europe to move to the colonies. A historian must accept both of these accounts, but a fictional historian is able to compromise the two into a middle ground and thus create an account that is more likely to be accurate.
It would seem that the work of a fictional historian drawing on all available information and compromising between them is more accurate and most likely has greater historical value than the historians account which must somehow encompass both ends of the spectrum. It is because of this reason that Black Robe and other novels like it are more likely to have an accurate depiction of the past than a conglomeration of wildly differing primary sources.