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The Story

It is 1758, and 18-year-old Sébastien de l’Espérance, a soldier in the Compagnies Franches de la Marine, serves King Louis XV in the fortified town of Louisbourg, located in present-day Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Encouraged by his best friend, Guillaume Rousseau, Sébastien finally summons the courage to propose to his beloved Marie-Claire Desbarats on June 1, mere moments before word arrives that British warships have been sighted offshore and are preparing to launch a massive attack. The bloody weeks-long battle that follows will test not only Sébastien’s and Guillaume’s strength and courage but also their loyalty to a cause that is ultimately doomed to fail.


Don answers questions about Brothers in Arms: The Siege of Louisbourg


QUESTION: You’ve written several novels, but all of them have been contemporary stories set in modern times. Why did you choose to write a historical novel?

DON: Many years earlier, I took my wife and daughters to see the restored fortress at Louisbourg (a quarter of the buildings and fortifications demolished in 1758 have been rebuilt), and I was captivated by the sight of history coming alive. Walking along those streets, moving through the buildings, and listening to guides in authentic costumes describing what it was like to live there left an indelible impression on me. It was a harsh environment in the 1700s, and I began to wonder what it would be like to be a young person struggling to make a life for himself or herself in that place at that time.


QUESTION: A lot of years passed before you started the book. What happened that made you begin writing it?

DON: My agent at the time, Marie Campbell, told me about Scholastic’s I Am Canada series, and I suddenly realized that the fall of Louisbourg would be a terrific focus for a novel in that series.


QUESTION:  So your intention was to describe the fall of the fortress?

DON: The main thrust of each novel in the series is the recounting of a significant battle, but as I’ve said a number of times before, stories are never about events. They’re always about how people are affected by those events, so I first had to decide who my main character would be.


QUESTION:  Why did you choose a soldier? Why not a private citizen?

DON: Two reasons. First, I thought that having the reader see the action through the eyes of a soldier would heighten the story’s drama. Second, the purpose of each of Scholastic’s I Am Canada novels is to share the backstory and facts related to a particular battle, and a soldier involved in the conflict would have firsthand knowledge of the action surrounding the attack that a private citizen would not.


QUESTION:  Was it hard putting yourself in the mind of that character?

DON: Yes and no. The hard part was making sure I understood the particular constraints of the time period.


QUESTION:  What did you do to ensure you understood those constraints?

DON: I read many, many books and spoke to leading authorities about Louisbourg. And I revisited the fortress so I could immerse myself in the environment and get a sense of the physical space. Looking at pictures and maps was helpful, but actually walking around and inside the restored structures was ideal in terms of helping me orient myself in that time period.


QUESTION:  Were there any books in particular that you found most helpful?

DON: Without question, the absolute best resource was the book Endgame 1758: The Promise, the Glory, and the Despair of Louisbourg’s Last Decade, written by A.J.B. Johnston. In fact, on multiple occasions, I consulted with Mr. Johnston about the validity and accuracy of the choices I was making in telling my story. I doubt there’s a person alive who knows more about Louisbourg in the 18th century than he does.


QUESTION:  When I asked if it was hard putting yourself in the mind of your main character, you said yes and no. How was it not hard?

DON: Although the time period was very different from that of the books I usually write, I believe there’s a universality in the way young people view the world. I’ve given presentations to teenagers as far away as Vietnam, and when I’ve had the opportunity to interact with them, I’ve discovered that despite their different geographical locations and cultures (and even languages), teenagers everywhere share many of the same dreams, the same concerns, the same fears. So I put myself in the role of that 18th century soldier and began envisioning what his dreams and concerns might be, and I realized almost immediately that he would be focused on his future and the person he hoped to share it with. That’s why Sébastien’s relationship with Marie-Claire acts as the backdrop against which everything else unfolds.


QUESTION: Sébastien’s friendship with Guillaume also plays an important role in the story, doesn’t it?

DON: Absolutely. In any armed forces, regardless of the time period or country being defended, camaraderie plays a crucial role in the effectiveness of the actions of its enlisted members. In no other endeavour do people depend so much on those around them, so it was no surprise to me when Guillaume entered the story.


QUESTION: You framed your story around an actual event, so I assume that most of the characters in it are real people who lived in Louisbourg at that time. Were Sébastien and Guillaume real people?

DON: Most of the characters in the novel are real, but Sébastien, Guillaume, Marie-Claire, and a handful of others are not. However, after completing the first draft of the manuscript, I returned to research materials to fact-check my details, and I learned that a 33-year-old man named Charles-Gabriel- Sébastien de l’Espérance lived at Louisbourg in 1758. I found that coincidence more than a little surprising, and I have no idea how it happened.


QUESTION: Of all the things you learned while researching the siege of Louisbourg, was there anything in particular that stood out?

DON: The one detail that resonated most strongly with me was the willingness of Louisbourg’s leaders to sacrifice every man, woman, and child in the town when the governor’s war council initially refused to accept the terms of surrender that the British had given them. Their determination to fight to the death rather than suffer indignity says so much about the value the French placed on honour. When I learned about the war council’s last-minute change of heart, I felt that the events around that moment held the same sense of heightened drama we see so often in contemporary edge-of-your-seat thrillers. The difference, of course, was that this was real life, and these were real people whose lives hung in the balance and were spared only at the very last moment.


QUESTION: Is that why you chose to build your entire story around that scene?

DON: Yes. Long before I began writing my first draft, I knew immediately that Brothers in Arms would not only begin and end with it but also return to it midway. No author, whether writing fiction or fact, could ignore the extraordinary dramatic tension of that experience.


QUESTION: Do you think you’ll ever write another historical novel?

DON: When it comes to the creative process, I’ve learned never to say never. However, I’m much more comfortable writing from a contemporary perspective, so I don’t see myself writing another historical novel any time soon.


A.J.B Johnston's book Endgame 1758 may be found here.


                 Scholastic 2015




Fortress Louisbourg seen from the visitors center.


Fortress Louisbourg seen from the Burying Grounds.

Check out Parks Canada's Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site.

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