Local author writes about forgotten local explorer

Natali Trivuncic
Staff Writer

History has a way of creeping into our everyday lives, whether it is through the street names that we pass by every day or the parks that we grew up playing in. For author James Fontana, it was the name of a hospital that peaked his interest.

While growing up, Fontana said he always wondered how the La Vérendrye General Hospital got its name. This, Fontana said, is how he got the idea for his new book Joyful Journey to Massacre Island.

Fontana was born in 1938 in Fort Frances where he grew up within a fifteen-minute walk to the river where the great La Vérendrye’s expedition passed. Fontana said growing up he always wondered who La Vérendrye was. This curiosity grew over the years, adding that this novel was a lifetime in the making.

Fontana was called to the Bar of Ontario in 1966. After 30 years on the bench, he retired in 2014 and returned to writing, producing more than seven books.

Published in September 2020, Joyful Journey to Massacre Island tells the story of the explorer La Vérendrye and his travels and experiences on Rainy Lake, the Rainy River, and Lake of the Woods in the early 1700’s. At the command of the Governor of New France, explorer Pierre Gaulthier de Varennes de La Vérendrye, joined by his three sons and a Jesuit missionary, set out from Montreal, known as Ville Ste-Marie at the time, with an expedition of 50 men on a treacherous journey.

In hopes of attracting a younger audience who may never have heard of the events, Fontana chose to write the novel as a historical narrative fiction which is fiction that is entwined around historical facts.

Fontana said he was initially going to write the novel as a history but decided against it because they ‘tend to be awfully dry.’ He adds that the historical thread and events of what took place are true, he just wove his own narrative around them.

When asked how he knows when to draw the line between his own narrative and historical fact, Fontana recounts something a friend said to him once about writing stories; ‘never let a few facts stand in the way of a good story.’

Over all, Fontana said he spent two and a half years working part time on the novel. During those two years, most of the time was spent between researching and rewriting.

As Fontana discovered that most of the history books of the fur trade era did not include La Vérendrye, he turned to scholars and professors in the U.S, mainly the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

Fontana said he spoke to many people who had knowledge of the construction of Forts St. Pierre, now known as Fort Frances, and St. Charles (Angle Inlet, Lake of the Woods). He then managed to hire a guide with a boat and spent half a day walking in the explorer’s footsteps.

Considering that not many know about La Vérendrye and his expedition, Fontana said his friends in Fort Frances were puzzled when he wanted to write about it and not something like the year that the Fort Frances Canadians hockey team won the 1952 Allan Cup.

Fontana said because of the La Vérendrye Parkway and hopefully his novel, La Vérendrye is no longer Canada’s “forgotten explorer.”

Fontana said he hopes the readers will take away new insights into those days and the rich history of Fort Frances.