by Dennis Dalman
The book was a long time coming. It took Agnes Rajala almost 20 years to write it and then, sadly, about a year ago she died at age 95 just two weeks before a company announced it would publish her novel.
And that is when Agnes’s daughter, Nikki Rajala, who lives in Rockville, came to the rescue. After many revisions and sharpening the book’s focus, Waters Like the Sky: Book I, The Chronicles of an Unlikely Voyageur was published, receiving warm reviews from critics and readers alike. It has been lauded for its finely detailed historical accuracy, for its gripping plot and for its feeling for a bygone exciting era.
The short novel, written mainly for young people, has garnered raves from mostly adult readers, who are eager for more books in the “Voyageur” series. Rajala said two more are on the way.
Waters Like the Sky is about a French boy named Andre, living in French Canada. Because his parents insist he get a thorough education from a local priest, Andre develops a keen intelligence, but he is miserable because neighbor boys bully him mercilessly about being an educated sissy. He longs to drop the books for adventures beyond his home. One day, after yet another round of taunting and physical assaults by neighbors in the woods, Andre walks the rest of the way home, only to discover his two parents frozen in fear in their home. Andre then spots a letter from France with a royal wax seal on it. Since his parents cannot read, Andre reads the letter, which is a devastating revelation. He learns his parents are not, in fact, his parents and that he and an older brother were sent to Canada from France during the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror. Andre also learns his older brother, Denis, has become a voyageur, plying the vast waters west beyond Lake Superior.
Armed with his intelligence and skills, Andre sets out as a voyageur and is soon appointed the leader of a canoe brigade as they head west, with Andre’s mission to somehow locate his brother. However, sinister complications arise when he learns he and his brother are in danger from a nasty villain who wants them both dead.
To tell anything more would be to spoil the novel’s many surprises.
Waters Like The Sky was begun so many years ago by Agnes Rajala because she wanted to awaken in young people an appreciation of the role the voyageurs played in the history of Canada and of northern Minnesota. It’s not surprising she chose such a topic, being as how she herself came from a long line of French-Canadian voyageurs.
Agnes Rajala lived in Big Fork, just north of Grand Rapids. For years she was a country-school teacher, later a curator of the Itasca County Historical Society, where she steeped herself in historical artifacts and research into Minnesota history.
Shy almost to a crippling point, Agnes wrote three books, published under pseudonyms because she was just too shy to put her own name on the book’s covers. The three books, now out of print, explored her Finnish heritage.
After finishing her novel, daughter Nikki sent it time and again to publishers during a 10-year period.
Based on critiques, expert editors suggested many ways to tighten the book and make it even better: show more and tell less, use more verbs and less adjectives; take out or tighten up episodes that are a bit repetitious, slow this scene down a bit, hurry up that scene and make it quicker, make some scenes more energetic, sharpen a few characters so they come across as less “stock” or cardboard.
After her revisions, the good news came about a year ago from North Star Press in St. Cloud.
Nikki was, of course, sad and disappointed her mother did not live long enough to see the publication of her book. But at the same time, knowing her mother’s extreme humility and shyness, Agnes would not have allowed her own name to be used in connection with the book.
“She was such a very private person,” Nikki noted. “Still, I’d like to think that after she died, Divine Intervention had something to do with the book getting published.”
Agnes, Nikki said, “was always a teacher even when she wasn’t a teacher.”
A number of Nikki’s ancestors were voyageurs, including a great-great grandfather who traveled the waterways of Canada and Minnesota. In the early 1800s, one voyageur ancestor, Prisque Peloquin, had to hide on land near Centerville, Minn. because of troubles between Indians. It was an Indian woman who found the man safe passage out of the crisis, thus saving his life.
Voyageurs were early traders, as far back as the early 17th Century, who traveled – mostly from Montreal – all the way west over the Great Lakes waterway and then throughout western Canada and Minnesota. Mostly French-speaking, they traveled in groups in long, large canoes to gather beaver and other fur pelts, trading them for goods originating back East.
Voyageurs (the name is French for “travellers”) plied the waterways of northern Minnesota, living Spartan lives of simplicity, hard work, extreme physical dangers and a rambunctious camaraderie, eating preserved foods they carried with them and stopping to smoke their long pipes during rest breaks. They often sang rousingly while paddling their canoes.
Needless to say, Nikki is proud of her voyageur ancestry, and she relishes doing research into the subject.
Even the cover of her Waters Like the Sky has a personal connection. The photo of the teen voyageur paddling the canoe, Colin Penziwol, is the son of a Finnish cousin of Nikki’s. Penziwol has a summer job in a Voyageur theme show at Fort Williams Historical Park near Thunder Bay, Ontario.
The following are the opening paragraphs of Waters Like the Sky:
“Closing the heavy door of Father Goiffon’s house behind him, André squared his shoulders, prepared to set off toward his home. The familiar quiver of nervousness sent a chill down his back as he peered through the gathering dusk at the path ahead.
Good! I’m glad it’s late.
That meant that his usual tormentors – Michel, Pierre, Claude, and the others – would be in their homes, perhaps eating their suppers. They would not be outdoors, to greet him with jeers and taunts.
He cringed as he thought of their sneers.“Bon-à-rien” – their name for him meant ”good for nothing.” It was their way of reminding him that, while they were helping their parents with the many chores of wresting a living from their small farms, André was still in school.
But it’s not my fault! André wanted to tell them. My father won’t let me quit school, as you have done. I have asked and asked him to let me stop these lessons, but he won’t. And what good will they ever do me? When will I ever use mathematics, or Latin, or fancy words?
Thinking of his troubles, he strode heedlessly, his feet crunching through the icy crust that the evening coolness had formed over the melted slush from the day’s warmth.
Nikki Rajala (pronounced Rye-lah) is a copy editor for The Visitor, a Catholic newspaper in St. Cloud.
She is the author of a previous book entitled Some Like It Hot: Its Lore and Stories, which is an exploration of Finnish ancestry.
Her husband, Bill Vossler, is also a freelance writer for various publications, including as a monthly guest columnist for the St. Cloud Times.
Rajala will be the featured speaker at 9 a.m. Thursday, Dec. 4 during one of the Sartell Senior Connection’s Coffee and Conversation meetings at Country Manor, East Door 2. Everyone is invited to attend.
Waters Like the Sky can be purchased on Rajala’s website: nikkirajala.com.