The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

The Pierre Adventures (1890-1898)

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

The Pierre Adventures were written by Gilbert Parker and began with “The Patrol of the Cypress Hills” (The Independent, 1890). Parker (1862-1933) was a noted Canadian journalist, author, playwright, and politician. Although he is not remembered today, in his time he was a popular and well-respected author, especially for his historical fiction.

Pierre was one of the earliest serial heroic Canadian characters, although he is more of an anti-hero, and sometimes even a villain, than anything else. The Pierre stories are tales of the Canadian frontier during the latter half of the nineteenth century, only twenty years after the Mounted Patrol had been established, when trappers, attacks by natives, and gold strikes were still common, and before the British had fully colonized the country. Pierre is a wandering gambler and occasional miner who travels around the frontier, all the way to the Pacific coast. He is known as “Pretty Pierre” because he is handsome and because his clothing, which is in the “pronounced French manner,”1 is as fetching as he can make it. Pierre is nonchalant, debonair, cool and nerveless, “like the death adder, small and beautiful, silent and deadly.”2 But he does not use his prettiness to his advantage with women–them he has no time for. A decade before, when he had been known as François Rives, he had discovered his wife being kissed by another man. Pierre left his wife and faked his own death. (Ten years later he discovered that the other man was her brother, but by then the love was gone between them, and all that was left was the pain).

Since that time he has wandered the frontier, moving from fort to fort and town to town with all the regularity of a patrolman on his beat. He supports himself by gambling and by smuggling and violating the laws of prohibition. For this he is wanted by the Mounties, but he is far too clever to be caught by them. They know he is involved in smuggling, but they can never catch him with the goods, so they watch him and warn him but never apprehend him. His relationship with the Mounties is uneasy; he respects some individual Mounties and hates others, but on the whole he does not have much use for them.

Pierre is a highly skilled gambler, to the point where, in one story, he moves west, to the Pacific coast, to find new victims who do not already know how good he is. His attitude toward gambling is reflective of his own paradoxical personality: he loves to win and he gambles to win, but the money he cares less about. He is “not a hard creditor,”3 and when he wins particularly big he will forgive the debt. In one story he wins the entire contents of a fort, down to the shirt off the Commander’s back, but he exchanges it for a fictitious ninety-nine-year lease on the fort.

Pierre is described early on as a “malicious, railing little half-breed,”4 and in a few of the early stories he is clearly the villain, as when he plots the murder of a Mountie. However, in most of the other stories he shows more positive qualities. In “God’s Garrison” Pierre is one of those who must be evacuated from Fort o’God because of an imminent attack on the fort by the native Sioux. Unfortunately another of the fort’s inhabitants is Grah the Idiot, a physically and mentally disabled man who will never be able to survive the evacuation. So Pierre volunteers to stay behind with Grah, to protect Grah and die for him, because “if we fight, and go out is the is great to have all the chances against and then to win.”5 Pierre succeeds in driving off the Sioux by killing their leader; for the rest of the winter he hunts for and feeds Grah (who channels God at one point, reassuring Pierre that he won’t die), going hungry himself:

And at last, when spring leaped gayly forth from the gray cloak of winter, and men of the H.B.C. came to relieve Fort o’God, and entered at its gates, a gaunt man, leaning on his rifle, greeted them standing like a warrior, though his body was like that of one who had lain in the grave. He answered to the name of Pierre without pride, but like a man and not as a sick woman.6 

In another story Pierre travels across the length of Canada in order to keep his word to a dying man and tell that man’s wife how he died. And in another story Pierre gives a statutory rapist, of whose crime no physical evidence exists but which Pierre knows to be a fact, a choice: take poison and die with a clean reputation, or live and instead face the law and social justice.

That is Pierre: faithful to his own code of morals rather than those of civilization. He states that the Ten Commandments have little use in the wilds of Canada, but that a man should keep his own commandments, “One by one to make your own, and never to break–comme ça?"7 These commandments include

thou shalt think with the minds of twelve men, and the heart of one woman...justice and mercy...thou shalt keep the faith of food and blanket...a man shall have no cause to fear his friend...remember the sorrow of thine own wife...make all women safe whether they be true or foolish...the strong should be ashamed to prey upon the weak.8 

and so on. Pierre is described, by himself and by others, as having been “possessed by a devil” at birth, and he is more than a little sardonic, not just about love and lovers but about the world in general, but he is not entirely without ethics, and for his few friends he would do anything:

I have not much love for the world...and not much love for men and women altogether; they are fools–nearly all. Some men–you know–treat me well. They drink with me–much. They would make life a hell for me if I was poor–shoot me, perhaps, quick! if–if I didn’t shoot first. They would wipe me with their feet. They would spoil Pretty, I have not much love; but Val, well, I think of him some. His tongue is straight; he makes no lies. His heart is fire; his arms are strong; he has no fear. He does not love Pierre; but he does not pretend to love him. He does not think of me like the rest. So much the more when his trouble comes I help him. I help him to the death if he needs me. To make him my friend–that is good.9 

Gilbert Parker was well-regarded in his day, even gaining a knighthood, but his reputation has faded considerably. This is a shame, since the Pierre stories are quite entertaining–they made his popular reputation, if not his critical one–and deserve better than to be forgotten. The Pierre stories are eminently agreeable and occasionally memorable reading. They are smartly told and give a good feeling of the Canadian frontier. Although Parker mentions starvation and cruel deaths, he still romanticizes the frontier in favor of entertainment, underplaying the sheer difficulty of clawing a life out of a brutal and desperate land.

The Pierre stories are prime examples of the New Romance (see: From the Memoirs of a Minister of France). Parker is an enjoyable storyteller, with some nice turns of phrase and a good touch at writing stories which are just long enough to entertain without being long enough to bore. His characterization is concise and memorable; characters aren’t three-dimensional but they have an entertaining two dimensions. The stories aren’t mysteries, but rather tales of the frontier in which crime often plays a part. The stories, which are linked and involve a rotating cast of characters, also have a nice dollop of supernaturalism, from the gods (or God) speaking through Grah the Idiot to an encounter with the native god the Scarlet Hunter and the last enclave of surviving buffalo. Pierre is not always the subject of the stories; sometimes he is only a bystander, or Fifth Business. The only flaw to the stories, really, is that coincidence sometimes plays too heavy a part. Parker was too skilled a craftsman to let the strings show as he maneuvered his puppets, and yet he did so anyhow. But despite this quibble, Pierre is a memorable character, and the Pierre stories are highly entertaining.

Recommended Edition

Print: Gilbert Parker, Pierre and His People: Tales of the Far North. Cirencester, UK: Echo Library, 2016.



1 Gilbert Parker, “The Patrol of the Cypress Hills,” in Pierre and His People (New York: Wayside, 1893), 4.

2 Parker, “The Patrol of the Cypress Hills,” 4.

3 Gilbert Parker, “The Tall Master,” in Pierre and His People (New York: Wayside, 1893), 202.

4 Gilbert Parker, “A Romany of the Snows,” in A Romany of the Snows (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1898), 172.

5 Gilbert Parker, “God’s Garrison,” in Pierre and His People (New York: Wayside, 1893), 28.

6 Parker, “God’s Garrison,” 32.

7 Gilbert Parker, “Three Commandments in the Vulgar Tongue,” in A Romany of the Snows (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1898), 4.

8 Parker, “Three Commandments in the Vulgar Tongue,” 5.

9 Gilbert Parker, “She of the Triple Chevron,” in Pierre and His People (New York: Wayside, 1893), 84.