Alumni Authors Series: Diana Davidson’s “Pilgrimage” | Work of Arts
Alumni Authors Series: Diana Davidson’s “Pilgrimage” | Work of Arts

Alumni Authors Series: Diana Davidson’s “Pilgrimage”

Diana Davidson's first novel is a beautiful story of redemption in a 19th century Métis settlement

Over the next few weeks, we are very excited to introduce some of our alumni who are making waves in the world of writing. Stay tuned to learn about some budding (or established!) authors who launched their writing careers with their Arts education.


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Photo by Rachel Hummeny

Diana Davidson (’98 BA; ’99 MA, English; ’03 PhD, University of York) lives and writes in Edmonton, Alberta. Her first novel, Pilgrimage (Brindle & Glass, 2013), was called a “work of frontier feminism” by The Edmonton Journal, spent many weeks on the Journal’s bestseller list and was shortlisted for the Alberta Reader’s Choice Award in 2014.  Davidson’s other work has won and been nominated for Writers Guild of Alberta awards and long-listed for CBC Writes. She is currently at work on a second novel set in the UK.

Davidson is the Director of Public Library Services for the Government of Alberta, but has a long history with the Faculty of Arts before that. Not only is she an arts alumna, she was a sessional instructor in the Department of English & Film Studies and for the Writing Studies Program. She also held a Killam Memorial Postdoctoral Fellowship from 2000-04.

Davidson’s studies and work have always been about writing, literature and the policies that enable and enhance access to books and information. It was both a natural extension of her work and a lifelong dream to publish Pilgrimage. “I have always been a writer and storyteller and to hold an actual book of mine in my hands for the first time is a thrill that will never be matched,” she says.

Davidson is currently finishing a second novel while working and mothering.


Read a description of Pilgrimage, from the publisher:

Pilgrimage opens in the deep winter of 1891 on the Métis settlement of Lac St. Anne. Known as Manito Sakahigan in Cree, “Spirit Lake” has been renamed for the patron saint of childbirth. It is here that people journey in search of tradition, redemption, and miracles.

On this harsh and beautiful land, four interconnected people try to make a life in the colonial Northwest: Mahkesîs Cardinal, a young Métis girl pregnant by the Hudson Bay Company manager; Moira Murphy, an Irish Catholic house girl working for the Barretts; Georgina Barrett, the Anglo-Irish wife of the HBC manager who wishes for a child; and Gabriel Cardinal, Mahkesîs’ brother, who works on the Athabasca river and falls in love with Moira. Intertwined by family, desire, secrets and violence, the characters live one tumultuous year on the Lac St. Anne settlement—a year that ends with a woman’s body abandoned in a well.

Set in a brilliant northern landscape, Pilgrimage is a moving debut novel about journeys, and women and men trying to survive the violent intimacy of a small place where two cultures intersect.


Read the opening of Pilgrimage here (reprinted with permission of Brindle & Glass):

Gabriel takes Moira’s hand and they walk to the part of the beach where the locals camp. Moira follows him because she does not know what else to do. They weave in and out of the brush and what seems like a hundred people beginning their day. She sees men sitting on the sandy beach, smoking pipes, bouncing babies in their laps, and laughing at one another’s stories about trapping and trading. Women unpack the supplies they have brought to make a morning meal.

On the grey-green sand, an old woman sits outside a small, sun-bleached tipi. Her fingernails are stained purple from picking the season’s first ripe saskatoon berries. She beads a small piece of hide with her signature pink, yellow, and white while she waits for her pot to heat up. The smell of animal fat frying over fire wafts through the air. Gabriel recognizes his grandmother’s tattooed hands before he sees her face.

“Nohkum? Tân’si.” He goes over and kisses her on the cheek.

The wrinkled woman looks up from her task and smiles at her favourite grandson.

“Where is everyone?” Gabriel asks her in Cree.

She answers, in Cree, “Your brothers are fishing. Your father, who knows? Sleeping off his drink or playing cards.”

Gabriel touches his grandmother’s arm. “Nohkum, this is Moira. She’s from Ireland.”

“Tân’si,” Gabriel’s grandmother says to the girl. She puts down her beadwork and spits tobacco into an empty can. Her dark brown eyes reveal nothing.

“Tân’si,” Moira answers. Her Gaelic lilt makes the word sound like “dansang” instead of “dtansay.”

“Moira came over with the Englishman Mahkesîs used to work for. You know, Mr. Barrett, the one who runs the Company store. Moira sometimes works there too.”

“Ehâ. I know who she is and I know who he is.”

Angelique is gruff with her grandson. She is old, not stupid. But she can’t expect Gabriel to understand—he does not know who the real father of his new nephew is or the circumstances of how his sister’s new baby came to be. Her sweet Mahkesîs, Gabriel’s sister, could not come to the beach this year.

Angelique stands up to check the fire under her pot. Gabriel’s grandmother is bothered that Gabriel brings this ghost-white girl to her, to their camp, to this sacred gathering. She remembers her from the New Year’s Eve dance; she was friendly with Mahkesîs. But why this girl? Angelique wonders. What is special about her besides her difference? That Bertha Tourangeau, who was sweet on Gabriel last summer, is a fine girl and will make a good wife. She is sturdy, a hard worker, and comes from a good Métis family. She will keep a good house and knows how to tan hides. She will teach her children Cree. Could this pale girl from across an ocean do any of that? As if there are not enough beautiful Cree or Métis girls Gabriel could love. Even though people say Gabriel is handsome like his father, her youngest grandson reminds Angelique of her late husband Mîstacakan, so Gabriel’s grandmother is polite to this foreigner he wants to introduce to her.

“Maskihkowapoy?” Gabriel’s grandmother speaks Cree even though she knows enough English to ask Moira if she would like some tea.

Moira nods and Angelique pours three cups of birchbark tea. Long strips of black and brown fish dry on a wooden rack that looks like a headless dog. A pot whistles. Bannock, skewered with a branch, roasts in the belly of the fire. Gabriel’s grandmother points to a patch of sand covered in a tattered red-and-black Company blanket similar to the one the two young people lay on together last night.

Moira nods appreciatively, sits on the blanket, and wonders what comes next. Pots and kettles hanging from hooks (on branches) remind Moira of the crook over the turf fire in her family’s cottage. Moira wants to connect with Gabriel’s grandmother. Gabriel is annoyed that his grandmother will not speak any English but is too respectful to show it. The Irish girl stays quiet.

“Pe mitso.” Gabriel’s grandmother is telling them to eat. The older woman takes some bannock off a burned willow branch and offers some to Moira and then to her grandson.

“Maskwawiyin,” she says and points to a white mass of bearfat sputtering in a hanging pot. “Kinosew.” She stirs the fresh fish as it fries. The woman rips out the fish’s skeleton with the same agility Gabriel uses to separate fur and skin from the dark pink flesh of weasels and muskrats. Her elk tooth necklace shimmies as she works. Fat sizzles and spits. Flesh swims in grease.

Moira feels like she might vomit. She reluctantly takes a bite of fried dough and tries to picture cooking in a camp like this; her palms start sweating. She made a sacrifice to leave the rain, poverty, and hopelessness of life in Ireland. She got on a boat in Cork and left everyone she knew and loved so she would not have to spend the rest of her days trying to wash the bog out of her clothes, or praying to Mother Mary that her belly was empty that month, or struggling to feed a houseful of little ones hungry for food and love. She left that possibility of a life to come here. At home, Moira resisted boys’ advances because it was a sin. Now she’s given in to temptation—at a holy place.

Moira realizes that once Gabriel leaves again, to go back to his work on the Athabasca River, she will have no way to contact him, to find him if she needs to. She can’t imagine what the Barretts will do to her if they discover this transgression. Maybe they will force her to leave their house—where would she go, what would she do? The only place she has ever lived besides Lac St. Anne is her Douglas, which is an ocean and a world away. Moira feels dizzy.

She thinks about the shame she would cause her mother if she knew about last night. She thinks about how her mother has prayed to Mother Mary for guidance every day since her father sent her older sister to a convent to conceal her out-of-wedlock pregnancy. For three years, Moira’s mother, Deidre, nimbly pulled and twisted strands of wool on her wheel and hooked them into countless bonnets and blankets to give to newborns in the village. The more little items she made, the more Deidre hoped she would stop thinking about her first grandchild, the one she did not get to hold or see before the Sisters buried him in an unmarked grave. Moira knows pregnancy and babies can change—and end—life in an instant. After all, Georgina Barrett’s loss, and Deidre’s silence, had led Moira to the Dominion of Canada, to Lac St. Anne.

Moira looks at Gabriel’s grandmother. She looks at Gabriel—the young man she let caress her body like it was a birchbark fiddle, the young man she loved and let love her, the young man she lay naked with all night, the young man who had brought her so much ecstasy that she had to bite her lip not to cry out. Moira looks away and can see pilgrims in the lake: clothed people stand with their arms in the air and their legs in the water. She watches Father Gabillon help people into the water from the shore. A brown-haired boy walks into the water carrying a roughly constructed poplar cross, taller than he is, on his shoulders. Father Lizeé is also waist-deep in the lake; his robes are soaked. Moira can hear the priest chant in Latin as he blesses Manito Sakahigan with holy water from a swinging chalice.

Moira notices a middle-aged woman, much heavier than Gabriel’s grandmother, standing deep in the lake with her eyes closed. Rosary beads dangle from her right hand. Her grey braid brushes the surface. She lets the lake lap softly at her sagging breasts. Water bleeds its way up to her heart, saturating her faded pink cotton blouse. She is wearing boots, but Moira cannot see this. The woman in the water stretches her arms up into the sky, calling out to Christ’s grandmother. The old woman starts to sing the Lord’s Prayer in Cree: “Nohtawinan Kihci-kisikohk Ka-yayin.” People around her listen. They look to the sky and search for redemption and healing.

“Kinanâskomitin.” Moira knows how to say “thank you” to Gabriel’s grandmother. She stands up and brushes grey-green sand from the folds of her skirt.

Confused, Gabriel asks, “Where are you going?”

“To the water.”

Gabriel does not follow her.

She feels Gabriel’s grandmother watching her.

Moira walks away from her lover. When she reaches the shore, Moira bends down to unlace her boots and unroll her stockings. An upside-down pike carcass and tiny puff of muskrat corpse float at the water’s edge, but they do not deter her. She places her stockings and boots in a pile and lifts her skirts to submerge her naked legs in weeds and water. For a moment, Moira thinks of a monster lurking deep beneath the surface of the water, but she brushes the thought away. She lets go of her skirt and clasps her hands to her chest.

Moira silently prays to St. Anne for guidance.

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