I was drawn to this book by a fascination I have long held with frontiers. When I was 9 or 10, my mum bought me a Christian series of books beginning with Love Comes Softly, written by Janette Oke. It was all centred on a bereaved couple making their way towards love though God, in the great unspoiled world that was the American frontier.
A Place called Winter is in no way similar to my formative book – but it is based partially on the frontier, in Saskatchewan; and involves love in unexpected places.
As the book opens, we are in an asylum with the main character Harry Cane. He is subjected to a hot water treatment, designed to cure him of his mental illness. This, of course, is what homosexuality was classified as – in turn-of-the-century London, as well as out in the wild North. Soon after his stay in the Essondale asylum, he is taken by a more progressive doctor to an experimental farm, where he is allowed to remember, and to heal.
In the book that follows, Harry remembers what came before. He had a wife and daughter in London, where he lived as a gentleman because this is how his deceased mother wished for he and his brother to be brought up: by a series of schools who knew nothing but how to bring men up as gentlemen. He was a man of means, before a bad piece of investment advice led to financial ruin, leading his family to need to return to his wife’s familial home. Their marriage was not a simple love match, but they enjoyed each other’s silence, and it suited them to marry. This may have stayed the case if it were not for his affair with a male voice coach and singer from his sister-in-law’s group of ‘Gaeity Girls (and Boys)’ which led to blackmail, and ultimately to him having to re-make his fortune beyond the shores of England.
He takes a ship to Canada, to seek his fortune, and as luck would have it he meets a man, Troels, who helps him to settle in a piece of land near Winter. The land is remote, but he has a neighbour, Paul, who lives with his sister Petra; and the three become close. The love story that follows is gentle and full of self-doubt, but the two men draw closer. After an unhappy incident during harvest, Harry marries Petra so that she can have a baby, and they assume a happy arrangement for a few short years before war breaks out.
Harry is a brilliantly-drawn character, but due to the lack of variation in narrative points of view, I didn’t feel like I understood the other characters as deeply. I guess I must be getting greedy, after reading so many novels that flawlessly jump from one person’s life-view to another’s. For all that, this book is a wonderful ill-starred love story, told well in the moves between past and present.
I would recommend this to lovers of frontier fiction, and those who enjoy a good love story.
Reviewed by Sarah Forster
A Place Called Winter
by Patrick Gale
Published by Tinder Press