Reviewed by Sue Green
From an aimless but ordered life in Edwardian England, with a wife and young daughter, Harry Crane moves alone to the wild and untamed Canadian prairies. Winter becomes his home, his sanctuary and ultimate escape from a life of potential misery. A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale is a novel that pulls at the heart, and keeps hold until the very end.
Winter, in Saskatchewan is a real place, and Harry Cane is loosely based on Gale’s own great grandfather. The novel charts the life of Harry, a shy, stuttering gentleman in Edwardian London. Harry’s boarding school childhood was lonely with frequent bullying episodes. His younger brother Jack was the outgoing and gregarious opposite. Left a sizeable family fortune, their futures seemed secure. Marriage and a daughter appear to provide Harry with a perfect life. Homosexuality, a punishable offence in this era became Harry’s secret. He discovered the thrill and sensuality of this forbidden love. His secret, uncovered by a relative, determines his future. By sheer chance he comes across an advertisement for land in Canada. ‘One hundred and sixty acres… for nothing but three years’ partial residency…’ (90) The year is 1908, and Harry has signed up for a new life on the prairies in Saskatchewan, Canada.
On the ship crossing from Liverpool to Halifax, Harry is befriended and pursued by Troels Munck. Troels is a predatory and overbearing figure who promises to give the new emigrants a helping hand. Harry is grateful for the direction and the help in finding his feet, but there is payback that makes the situation uncomfortable. Troels develops in the novel as a figure to be feared and hated, a person who has no morality, who is only in the business of preying on foolish and weak young men. Harry is not alone in being helped by Troels, but this does not make the situation any more bearable.
Harry does find peace and happiness, and friendship on the land. He develops a working body that becomes tough, fit, and able to work tirelessly though the harsh seasons of Saskatchewan. He is able to build fences, build his house, and grow crops in the tough and untamed land. Gale’s prose carries the reader through the hardships and the joys of achievement. ‘As for the cold, he had never experienced anything like it: a dry, iron clamp upon the land, like death itself, full of unexpected beauty…’.(166). This toughness also allows Harry to work through his inner demons, but ultimately, for his sins, Harry is committed briefly to a mental hospital.
The novel moves simultaneously between the time Harry spends in hospital and his life journey. Initially this is somewhat puzzling, however the author so carefully crafts his words that it does not discourage, but encourages. The reader will recognise in Harry his honesty and simplicity in searching for answers and ultimately happiness.
The cover of the paperback edition has been cleverly constructed. The orange and rust colours, along with a solitary man depict the rural landscape. The images of wheat, endless horizons and a wooden homestead is reflected in the content of the novel. The title of the novel is somewhat of a teaser. It is suggestive of the season, rather than the place name, but it also reflects the chill of the environment, and aspects of Harry’s life.
This is an enthralling and warm work. From the moment the words start falling together, the reader is pulled into the world of Harry Crane. The countryside, the characters, the drama and the scenes, are beautifully crafted into this latest wonderful novel by the acclaimed author Patrick Gale. Gale’s use of language, the simple, yet powerful construction of his prose, give his novels an edge.
The words flow, and create a picture for the reader.
He stared at fields where there were still traces of morning frost, at the myriad of small, bird-haunted ponds…at tracts of uncultivated wilderness in between (139)
Readers familiar with the plains of Saskatchewan, and Moose Jaw will delight in recognising some of the country – the vast plains, the wheat fields, and the sparseness of the countryside. Over 100 years on, this is still wild country. This reviewer had travelled through Moose Jaw in the 1980s, and was delighted to recognise and identify with a town that had been etched in the memory.
The story weaves around secrets, love and brutality, but it is Harry Crane who shines, as a man in search of truth, and love – a man who cannot lie to himself, a man who is honest.
A Place Called Winter is a compelling read. The novel does not offer any solution to the issues that it raises, but gives a sympathetic and hopeful portrayal of the discrimination and shame of people who did not fit into the society they were born into.
Gale also offers the reader an insight into the background for his novel. ‘Winter is a real place, though now an atmospheric ghost town…the acres Harry first ploughed over a century ago are still under cultivation.’ (339)
Surprisingly for a work of fiction, this one is loosely based on a family history. Gale does ‘acknowledge his fictitious filling in of blanks’ in the life of Harry. There is a scholarly bibliography at the end for readers who are inspired to research further into the settlers of Western Canada, and the discrimination and ills of homosexuality in the Edwardian era.
By Patrick Gale
340pp; AU $29.99