The bulk of the story — accompanied by Cheryl Pilgrim’s fetching pencil drawings — takes place on a river, as eight men, each comically named Jean (Jean Paul, Jean Luc, et al.), journey from Montreal to a trading post on Lake Superior, where they will barter with the Anishinaabeg. Having smelled “wanderlust, a call to adventure of the grandest sort,” Le Rouge hides in the voyageurs’ canoe, curious about what new goods they seek. He sings with the men as they paddle, but all they hear is “chirring,” a sound so annoying they threaten to turn him into “squirrel stew.”
Le Rouge’s squirrel’s-eye view makes the narration intimate: “I heard the loons singing their sad songs to each other, from lakes far apart. And I heard the crew discussing my fate.” He finds refuge in the pocket of Jean Gentille, a book lover and kind soul among gruff traders.
Throughout, there’s lilting nature writing, like this description of what Le Rouge sees from a tree: “Below me, the river split into many glittering waterways, divided by a confusion of islands and peninsulas.”
When the voyageurs arrive at Lake Superior, Le Rouge discovers they will be trading for “the skins of my animal brethren.” Horrified, he riffs on Thoreau’s “Walden” (which wouldn’t be written for 62 years): “‘I am going into the woods,’ I chirred to my crew, ‘to live deliberately.’”
There he meets Monique, a flying squirrel, and together they rouse a posse of disparate, fur-bearing animals, from wolves to chipmunks, to join their protest against the voyageurs’ trade in skins — a plan that turns prankish but offers a contemporary message against cruelty to animals, leaving the reader wondering if we humans have progressed at all.