A gentle and emotional novel set at the turn of the 20th century about an unacceptable love, friendship and hard work. A Place Called Winter combines the backdrop of the stuffy Edwardian drawing room and the rugged and windblown Canadian Prairies with the effects of the Great War and the steely determination of the European settlers to tame the Indian wildernesses of Canada’s frontier.
The novel alternates, quite abruptly at times, between three time periods that show the vastly different eras in main character Harry Crane’s life. The first time the reader meets him he is an asylum patient miserably subjected to torturous water treatments- he’s selected by an experimental doctor to attend his healing residential retreat in the mountains. Then we go back to Harry’s former domestic life in London; we see his relationship with his brother, his courtship and marriage of his wife and the disgrace that shattered his comfortable domesticity. We then see his experiences on the Canadian frontier and his attempts to cultivate his land and carve out a living as a homesteader.
Harry is an intriguing character, deeply conflicted but really adaptable for somebody previously unaccustomed to change. He undergoes several transformations, wearing some personas more comfortably than others; brother, husband, father, outcast, farmer, patient. He drifts through life, benignly reacting to the incidents that befall him and, for the most part, meekly accepting his fate. For the first few chapters of the book it seems that Harry is leading a perfectly normal, if slightly reclusive life of quiet respectability. Entrusted with his father’s property and income early in life, he keeps an eye out for his lively and dynamic younger brother, never quite sure who is protecting whom.
Harry’s life, however, is revealed to be far from respectable- faced with a catastrophic scandal he is ejected from the comfortable family he has married into, his real reason for departure kept hidden from all but one of the family. To save those he loves from the shame of his exposure, Harry chooses to emigrate to the Canadian colonies- 160 acres of prime prairie land for the taking for the bargain price of three years’ residence. Packing up his belongings, he starts a new life as a frontiersman, falling in firstly with an incredibly unsavoury character and then with two neighbouring homesteaders that bring him comfort and happiness and a uniquely convenient brand of companionship.
The way in which the pages just melted away was pretty incredible- it’s a gently paced read but the character is so absorbing- the reader just wants him to be happy. I absolutely love a good frontier story- not even joking, that’s my ideal life. The author describes in loving detail the metres of fence uncoiled, the ditches dug, the stones removed and the lumber felled. It’s satisfying just reading about such hard work. Gale makes the prairies seem full of potential and satisfaction, beautiful and unspoilt, but at the same time hostile, particularly towards lone farmers, dangerously hostile in the winters and unforgiving places for women- definitely a double edged sword. There are some uncomfortable arm’s length references to the Plains Indians too- there’s a sense of guilty helplessness, a feeling that it’s sad to evict these ancient people, but what else is a settler to do?
Gale’s prose is at times both lyrical and utilitarian, depending on the events discussed, successfully emphasising the difference between Harry’s comfortable London early life and his self-built, comfortable but basic lumber home. Sections of the book are quite surreal and nightmarishly trippy- but the devastating pieces align in the end to tell a life’s story that is hugely unconventional in many ways, but which has sort of all worked out for the best. I felt so protective of Harry- he was such a sympathetic, innocent character and I just wanted to shield him from all the terrible things that came his way in life. His stay at the woodland retreat revealed him as a hugely compassionate and tender person, regardless of the violence he might have felt driven to in the past. He deserved the happiness he found in Canada as he absolutely always did his best for others throughout the book.
If you likes Jim Crace’s Harvest or Steinbeck-ish tales of wheaty struggle, then give this novel a go.