How would you cope if you were suddenly cast out from your home, family and everything that’s familiar to start a new life from scratch in the wilderness? It’s a terrifying prospect for anyone. This is exactly the position author Patrick Gale’s great grandfather found himself in when, under the threat of disgrace; he was pressured into leaving his family and comfortable life as a gentleman in the UK to start anew as a pioneer farmer in rural Canada. In A Place Called Winter Gale fictionally recreates a heart-wrenching tale of tenacity in the face of the unknown using this very personal tale from his family’s history as inspiration. What I’ve always found so mesmerizing about Gale’s writing is how close he makes me feel to his central characters so that their struggles feel entwined with my own. Nowhere have the dilemmas which trouble his character felt more immediately real than in this new dramatic and intimate novel.
Harry Cane is a young man living at the turn of twentieth century London. He has a life of leisure as he subsists solely on the proceeds of his inheritance after his father’s early death. He’s a naturally shy man who suffers from an occasional stutter. But through his gregarious younger brother he meets a woman named Winifred who seems like a natural match that he can marry and settle down with. Things go along companionably for some time, but soon buried passions come to the surface. Gale movingly writes about the way both Harry and Winifred have desires which they’ve had to suppress due to social pressures. Harry believes he can negotiate his way around the scrutiny of the public to satisfy his needs, but when the truth about his actions is uncovered he’s strongly pressured into defecting from his comfortable life or face the social and legal ramifications of exposure.
Under the pretence of seeking his own fortune, Harry sets out for a rural area of Canada where pioneers are offered the chance of securing free land if they inhabit and farm it for three years. Here the story is set rapidly in motion as this vulnerable individual must forge a new life for himself. Practically overnight Harry goes from being an established person in society to a place where “he was an unregarded nothing.” It must take a lot of strength of character for someone who has lived a pampered existence to move to a new country and learn the physically arduous existence of farming. You might think one of the few benefits such a new life would involve is the freedom to live as one wants to in relative solitude. But faced with the dangerous elements of this new land, Harry relies more than ever on being accepted. He finds that “even in such a small and scattered community, it was better to be known a little than to be thought odd and avoided entirely.” The necessity to be a part of and accepted by a community demand that a person is subject to that society’s conventions – at least, on the outside.
Gale cleverly frames his story with descriptions of Harry’s life at a future point when he’s been detained in a psychiatric hospital. Fragments of his life in this institution are scattered throughout the book and it’s only in the later chapters of the book that the reader is made aware of how he ended up at this point. For some time, it feels as if there is no way Gale can reconcile the parallel narratives he’s created. But it’s ingenious the way the stories of Harry’s past and present come together in a way that is so unexpected it made me feverishly read the last seventy pages to find out what happens. Without giving any spoilers, it’s sufficient to say the ending is a tremendous and emotionally-arresting surprise.
The thing which makes this novel especially moving is the way Gale writes about the different ways people were inhibited within society at that time from expressing how they really wanted to live. By considering the diversity of people institutionalized in the mental hospital these issues are brought into sharp focus. This facility isn’t inhabited only by patients with debilitating mental illnesses, but by people who don’t fit the mould dictated by society. There are interesting parallels found here with the mental institution described in the novel “The Morning and the Evening” by Joan Williams which I read recently. Stressed and abused housewives are labelled as “insane” as are transvestites and homosexuals. Native Americans are corralled into specific areas and pressured into not integrating with the farmers who settle around them. Intelligent women who simply have no desire to marry are outcast as are women who are raped or abused. Gale shows the way in which those who don’t conform are persecuted and more importantly the impact this has on how these individuals understand their own identities. It’s remarked that “When a thing has always been forbidden and must live in darkness and silence, it’s hard to know how it might be, if allowed to thrive.” When people are pressured into suppressing aspects of their identities they don’t even know how instinctual behaviour will manifest if allowed to be expressed openly.
Gale delicately portrays how his protagonist Harry struggles to establish a life for himself when forced to abandon everything that’s familiar. Alongside his newfound awareness for how to make a living off from the land, Harry’s psychology changes so that he better understands his own desires and what he wants in order to find true fulfilment. It’s a struggle most people face in less dramatic circumstances and without having to be ousted from everything they call home. Reading about Gale’s carefully rendered portrayal of the time makes me thankful for the considerable freedoms I have to express myself and openly search for what I really want in life. Filled with joy, humour and sorrow, this book probes into what gives us our humanity. In short, A Place Called Winter is a novel with a tremendous amount of heart.