Winter, Saskatchewan, is a real place, first settled in 1908. The town grew up around a station named after one of the contractors who built the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway, which drew European settlers to the Canadian prairies because, under the Dominion Lands Act, a quarter-section of land (160 acres) could be possessed without payment if a homesteader cultivated a quarter of it within three years. Among these settlers is Patrick Gale’s fictional Harry Cane, whose experience is loosely based on that of Gale’s own great-grandfather.
Nothing could seem more quixotic, at first sight, than that a married man living in England with a young child and a private income should decide to leave it all and sail to Canada for a life of hard physical work and uncertain chances. By the time Harry gets on the emigrant ship, Gale has established his character with precise, economical strokes. He is apt to stammer and to stick in his rut, having been marked by the early death of his mother and constrained by everything that is expected of him. What changes his life utterly is the realisation that he loves men. In a period where homosexual acts, even in private, were punished both by the law and by social disgrace, Harry meets Mr Browning, an actor who offers voice coaching. They begin a sexual relationship, which on Harry’s side is a revelation of love and passion. When their relationship is exposed by a blackmailer, Harry is told by his wife’s family to remove himself immediately from wife, child and country. Harry’s panic and shame and the terse, self-righteous brutality with which he is ordered out of his own life reveal the mores of the time more effectively than any polemic.
The prairies are a new world where men and women are transformed by a way of life that is harsh but offers a certain freedom and space to reinvent the self. Gale’s confident, supple prose expresses the labour and hardship that toughen Harry’s body as they calm his mind. The farm work he undertakes, the building of his house, the fencing and breaking of the land, are all described in authoritative and engrossing detail. But for Harry there is no chance of shedding the past. The classic story of a man finding himself through labour on his own land is derailed almost as soon as it begins to take shape.
Harry is pursued by a nightmarish figure called Troels Munck who takes charge of him on the voyage out, under the guise of showing a raw emigrant the ropes. In Troels, Gale has created an extraordinary character: brutal, sadistic yet clinging, with a gift for spotting the weaknesses of other men and making himself essential to them. Above all Troels is a creature of superbly developed animal instinct, unvexed by any ideas of morality. With his random, prowling capacity for destruction, he will haunt Harry’s career as a homesteader. Expertly, Gale teases out the threads that bind these two men. Harry knows how dangerous Troels can be, but cannot release himself. “Harry knew he didn’t need to go with Troels. He knew he could find his own way to a piece of land and make an entirely independent start for himself.”
But he goes with Troels. The quarter-section Troels has chosen for him will bring Harry great happiness, and a neighbour whom he comes to love, but it will also bring horror, death and incarceration. Harry is committed to a mental hospital and then a more benign institution called Bethel, funded by Dr Gideon Ormshaw who uses hypnosis to open the closed doors of the mind. He is reminiscent of the hypnotist Lasker Jones, who attempts to cure what he calls congenital homosexuality in EM Forster’s novel Maurice. Neither of these self-proclaimed healers is as benevolent as he first appears. Harry’s struggle, like Maurice’s, cannot be resolved easily because he is caught between two equally destructive pressures. The world will not accept him as he is and punishes him for expressing his sexuality, while he is pressured from within by the destructive pattern of self-hatred expressed in his relationship with Troels.
A Place Called Winter does not offer resolution, but it does offer hope that emotional truth and loyalty to that truth may be a way forward for Harry. He is an intensely sympathetic character in his struggles, his despair and the fundamental honesty that will never let him lie to himself for long. Harry Cane is one of many, the disappeared who were not wanted by their families or their societies and whose stories were long shrouded with shame. This fascinating novel is their elegy.