Why a booktrail?
Inspired by a real life family mystery of a family member who emigrated to Canada, Patrick Gale has drawn a sobering picture of love, family duty, self discovery and hope.
Story in a nutshell
Harry Cane is a quiet unassuming man who is also shy and eligible marriage material and so soon becomes married to Winnie Wells. Her family appear as respectable and the match a good one. Indeed marriage seems good and a baby soon follows.
But behind the facade, the dark truth is bubbling and scandal is not far away. When it becomes too much to bear, Harry is forced to leave everything behind and to emigrate to the newly colonized Canadian prairies to work as a homesteader.
In a place called Winter, conditions are tough and this new life very different to what he expected. Yet he finds something unexpected
Place and setting
Three very different settings and their differences are highlighted by their stark contrast
The Asylum, Canada
As the novel opens, Harry is fighting to stay sane and alive in an asylum where he is forced to undergo treatments to settle his mind and to solve his ‘ troubles’. The treatment is harsh and unexpected. What has led to this? What is Harry’s story? Even a more comfortable establishment, causes Harry to have flashbacks on his life, taking us to London and then back to Canada at the start of the railways…..
In London, Harry is a shy young man with a stammer and a lazy attitude to life in general. When at last he is married into the Wells family from Strawberry Vale in Twickenham, London, it’s more a platonic relationship than anything else and his life is once more a societal expectation rather than a free reign. Observing women in the street-
Were they blameless less or scarlet?
Of course it was in the nature of respectability to reveal or imply nothing but itself.
These are the times with plenty of expectations and social constraints – taking a bath in Jermyn Street or attending the musical theatre of the Gaiety girls with his wife. They settle in Herne Bay and for a while life is good if not boring. Such strict constraints and expectations are shattered when he falls in love with another man. When people find out, the consequences are shocking.
To feel that emigration is the best solution to avoiding a relationship and the shame it would bring on your family is shocking and sad to read. Under the threat of total social isolation, he sets off to Canada where the saying is ‘Civilisation will follow the railway’ Harry becomes homesteader and a labourer on a remote Saskatchewan prairie.
The Canadian wilderness with its new railway towns is harsh, cold and very very remote and the settlements are changing the face of the landscape. On a map of the Canadian Pacific Railway System, you can find Castle Battleford the home of the Dominion Lands office.
Another lesser railway went on from there to stop at places like Unity, Vera, Winter, Yonker and Zumbro. “Troels says the places are named in alphabetical orders because there’s nothing else to call them in such a vast, empty space.”
The land and the work is harsh. The development of the railways and the men working on it is fascinating as it is hard to imagine the scope of the work they are doing. Painful, laborious and brutal conditions. Indeed even the packing list which all immigrants were issued with before arrival seemed harsh, then the reality once they get there is all the more so.
Two pairs Canadian mittens
A cholera belt
Two jerseys (Guernsey knit for endurance)
In this harsh climate far far away from the troubles of uptight and clinical London, Harry forms a new life and new friends but the threat of war and of other things is not too far away –
Where are the shackles around Harry’s ankles the tightest? In cold static London, the Canadian wilderness or the asylum?
This was such a personal and heartbreaking story of loss and endurance that it was unbelievable that this poor man went through so much just because of who he was and the time he lived in. The author has taken a personal family story and has turned this into something poetic and haunting. Edwardian London contrasts with the working conditions of the harsh Canadian landscape and follows the struggles of one man, but I imagine representative of so many.
The setting of Canada and the part of history where the railways were booming and towns were growing up along the line was fascinating to read about. The lives of these people, the homesteaders and the roles men and women played were insightful and fascinating. Details such as the list given to those emigrating and the way the towns were named along the line drew an interesting picture of the Canadian wilderness.
A haunting story of one man’s quest to be himself and to escape the past.
And we think the book of 2015 that is not to be missed!