I had no idea what to expect when I began this novel. At first it didn’t seem like it had anything to do with the blurb I read, as the first pages were an account of the horrific way the mentally ill were treated in asylums near the turn of the century. Then, I began to see how the story would evolve and grow…
What an amazing book! The author has written of his own forebears, embellishing with fiction what he could not know for certain as fact. Painstakingly researched, he has written a fine tribute to his own family as well as the homesteaders who settled the Canadian West in the early 1900s.
Winter, Saskatchewan is a real place. Harry Cane, the protagonist of this novel, was the author’s great-grandfather.
Harry, an Englishman of means and leisure, is married and the father of a daughter, when he first realizes that he is gay. This, in a time when homosexuality was not only socially unacceptable, but it was actually illegal! When his family is threatened by blackmail, he does the noble thing – he emigrates to Canada. The government is offering 160 acres in exchange for three years residency on them. This land, appropriated from the resident Cree Indians, he is expected to farm.
“Think of the memories as pus; once it comes to the surface, you wipe it away. Or, better yet, as mud; brought out into the air, it dries in the sun and then crumbles to dust.”
When he arrives in Canada he is taken under the wing of a irreputable man named Troels Munck. A man whose presence in Harry’s life will produce much trauma and heartache.
Harry, who loves reading, riding horses, and has never worked a day in his life, is suddenly immersed in immeasurable toil and hardship. He works arduously for a year with a prairie family before setting out to claim his own acres in Winter, Saskatchewan. Here he is expected to build himself a shelter to live in and plow land that is not yet cleared of trees and rocks.
Cut off from his family, he is a solitary workhorse making some little headway, until he becomes ill. Kindly neighbors take him into their homestead and nurse him back to health. These neighbors, Paul and Petra, a brother and sister, are people he will come to love over time. He orders a house kit from the Eaton’s catalogue, and proceeds to make a life for himself.
“Luckily he had enough set by that he could focus on doing his own work rather than another man’s.”
On one of Troel Monck’s infrequent visits to the farm, he attacks Petra, leaving her wounded and traumatized.
When WWI begins, Harry and Paul elect to stay on the farm rather than go off to fight. Wheat was a much needed commodity to feed the vast number of soldiers, so there was no shame in staying put. A run in with the dastardly Monck changes Paul’s mind and he enlists. Soon after he is ‘missing in action’.
This novel has some serious themes running throughout. Not only is it a remarkably well written historical novel, it is a love story, a bold and realistic didactic treatise on how society has historically treated both the mentally ill, and homosexuals.
I thoroughly enjoyed every page of this astounding novel. Never did it lag, or become slow. I was rapt with learning of Harry’s plight, and wondering how the beginning of the novel could possibly join up with the flashbacks that comprised the bulk of the story. With an ending that is both satisfying and realistic, I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys historical fiction.
I received a digital copy of this novel from Grand Central Publishing via Edelweiss.
Patrick Gale was in 1962 on the Isle of Wight, where his father was prison governor at Camp Hill, as his grandfather had been at nearby Parkhurst. The family moved to London, where his father ran Wandsworth Prison, then to Winchester. At eight Patrick began boarding as a Winchester College Quirister at the cathedral choir school, Pilgrim’s. At thirteen he went on to Winchester College. He finished his formal education with an English degree from New College, Oxford in 1983.
His first two novels, The Aerodynamics of Pork and Ease were published by Abacus on the same day in June 1986. The following year he moved to Camelford near the north coast of Cornwall and began a love affair with the county that has fed his work ever since.
He now lives in the far west, on a farm near Land’s End with his husband, Aidan Hicks.