How much do you know about frontier life in Edwardian-era Canada? Not much, I’d imagine. I certainly knew very little, which made Patrick Gale’s latest novel A Place Called Winter all the more compelling. Spanning the period after the turn of the twentieth century to the First World War and beyond, it’s a wonderful, heartrending tale and one that I really struggled to put down.
The hero of Gale’s story is Harry Cane, nicknamed Windy by his peers and in general a rather unfortunate, lost soul. Married and living a gentlemanly existence in rustic Twickenham, a series of events conspire to turn his life upside down, culminating in his boarding a ship bound for Toronto. Without giving too much of the plot away, the situation that sends him away from his home and family is utterly heartrending.
From there, it’s a sprawling epic, as this gentle urban squire is inducted into the challenges of farming and of life in a vast, empty, and often freezing land. Harry is initially a fish out of water; an upper class, well-mannered Londoner in a land that has little truck with the social structures of the mother country. Nevertheless, gradually he finds his place, especially after meeting his new neighbours and beginning the passionate relationship he never imagined that he would have. But even then, the contented life he carves out for himself is fragile and threatened at every turn.
Through Harry’s eyes, we learn of the privations of life in the wild and the constant terror of being somebody whom society cannot accept. Harry – curious, modest and heartfelt – is a wonderful protagonist; one you cheer on at every step. The action flits between past and present, so that you meet Harry as a dreamer and also as someone scarred by his experiences, keeping the reader guessing about what prompted the change.
Gale writes skilfully, bringing to life the wildness and the vast emptiness of Canada in that era, and offering microscopic detail about the day-to-day tasks Harry and his peers would have faced. The plot twists and turns improbably, and perhaps a little too much happens, but the characters are consistently convincing and engaging. It’s a fascinating period of history, often covered from the British perspective but far less from the Canadian one. This is a personal story; a poignant and thought-provoking tale that will stay in your mind long after the last page.
Published by Tinder Press, Patrick Gale’s A Place Called Winter is available to buy online here.