Sunday, September 12, 2010
The year is 1867. Winter has just tightened its grip on Dove River, a tiny isolated settlement in the Northern Territory, when a man is brutally murdered. Laurent Jammett had been a voyageur for the Hudson Bay Company before an accident lamed him four years earlier. The same accident afforded him the little parcel of land in Dove River, land that the locals called unlucky due to the untimely death of the previous owner.
A local woman, Mrs. Ross, stumbles upon the crime scene and sees the tracks leading from the dead man's cabin north toward the forest and the tundra beyond. It is Mrs. Ross's knock on the door of the largest house in Caulfield that launches the investigation. Within hours she will regret that knock with a mother's love - for soon she makes another discovery: her seventeen-year-old son Francis has disappeared and is now considered a prime suspect.
In the wake of such violence, people are drawn to the crime and to the township - Andrew Knox, Dove River's elder statesman; Thomas Sturrock, a wily American itinerant trader; Donald Moody, the clumsy young Company representative; William Parker, a half-breed Native American and trapper who was briefly detained for Jammett's murder before becoming Mrs. Ross's guide. But the question remains: do these men want to solve the crime or exploit it?
One by one, the searchers set out from Dove River following the tracks across a desolate landscape - home to only wild animals, madmen, and fugitives - variously seeking a murderer, a son, two sisters missing for seventeen years, and a forgotten Native American culture before the snows settle and cover the tracks of the past for good.
My initial reaction to this book is how bleak and frigid it made me feel. The locale was nothing but white snow and the constant trudging through it to get from one far and distant place to another. The author's narrative was evocative of the desolation and loneliness of the freezing cold plains of the Canadian wilderness in the nineteenth century. A murder mystery yet also a physical and metaphoric journey for the main characters. Set in the wintry wilds of 1860's Canada, a mother searches for her son, who the authorities believe commit the murder. A young, idealistic Company man (as in Hudson Bay Company) searching for the same said son, and the son, Francis, who must deal with the sadness and memory of his murdered friend and lover.
A murder has taken place and the usual suspects are rounded up. The primary suspect is the seventeen year old son of a middle aged couple, the Ross's. Mrs. Ross finds the dead body and she immediately puts two and two together, realizing the disappearance of her adopted son is probably no coincidence. We are in her head throughout much of the book and I identified with her, naturally, having a teenage son myself. Mrs. Ross has a mysterious past, having lived a few years of her life as a teen in an asylum. Unable to carry a child to term, she and her husband adopted Francis as a young boy. Yet, over the years as he grew up, she and her husband become distant with one another. Why? What happened? We don't know.
Francis, her son, has a secret as well, which was no surprise, it was the first thing I suspected. He was having a homosexual relationship with the murder victim, Laurent. I felt terribly sorry for Francis, for he had no one to turn to and he had really cared for Laurent - who seemed to be the only light he had in his life. His father, who we later realize knew about his secret, would have nothing to do with him, and his mother was completely unaware of it until she finds out during her quest to find him.
Much of the book details the long route north from the little town of Dove River. It turns out Francis has set out on his own to follow the killer who he saw leave Laurent's cabin. Then Donald Moody and his guide and friend, a half breed Indian, Jacob, set out in hopes of finding Francis to question him and bring him back to Dove River. Then Mrs. Ross leaves with an enigmatic trapper, William Parker, who had known Laurent, the dead man. Parker was taken in as a suspect and after being severely beaten by a corrupt Company man he is let go by a town official who was disgusted by the way he was brutally treated. Parker agrees to be Mrs. Ross' guide to help her search for Francis and it turns out he knows a lot about who probably was behind Laurent's murder. There are a lot of "it's a small world" moments in this book.
So, we have three groups heading north separately that all wind up in this little Norwegian settlement. Francis has been injured and Moody and Jacob find him there. Moody is still unconvinced he didn't kill Laurent, not believing Francis' story of hoping to find the real killer. Then Francis' mother shows up with Parker (of who she is developing a fondness) and she helps nurse Francis. Still, the real killer is on the loose and being protected in another settlement some distance away. The only way to prove Francis' innocence is to find the real killer which takes everyone (but Francis who has a broken leg) to the other far away Post in the middle of a snowy nowhere.
Eventually, the truth, which is a bit convoluted, comes out, though I found the reason for the murder anti climatic and not nearly as interesting as I'd hoped it would be. I found the ending a bit up in the air. What happens to Francis? What happens to Mrs. Ross? What about the lost daughter - whatever happens to her - does she return to Dove River? The characters were rather melancholy and some parts of the story sort of spiraled off into nowhere, for example, Line, a Norwegian woman who runs off with her lover and children, nearly dies from exposure, lost in the woods. Or Ida, the daughter of a neighbor of the Ross' who had a fancy for the teenage Francis. What happened to all of them?
I enjoyed reading this book as a change of pace from my usual and I got a strong sense of the Canadian wilderness - it's vast and terrible beauty if caught unprepared without shelter or a compass. The different threads that interweave throughout the book made the mystery interesting and compelling, and I appreciated it how all the threads come together in the end in a sort of six degrees of separation kinnd of way, despite some loose ends.
If you are interested in this time period and a Canadian setting then this book may be for you. Well written, though not a page turner, I recommend it solely for the experience of "living" during this time and place. The individual characters stories are human and realistic, yet they take a back seat to the central character - which is the desolate and beautiful Canadian vista of the 1860's.