Robert Pachal is a farmer from Saskatchewan who agrees to accompany his late brother-in-law's body back to Ontario, after the latter dies mysteriously on the prairie. Having never been far from home before, the journey is an adventure filled with wonder. Until he boards the small boat that will take him to his wife's hometown of Combermere. There he meets a group of travelling salesmen, an elderly woman and his wife's uncle and his friends. Together they will share an entirely different sort of adventure, one marked by both tragedy and survival.
Based on a true story and set primarily in pre-WWI Ontario, Canada, this novel immerses the reader in the period. The author drops tidbits of historical events and characters throughout the narrative. His image-laden prose is a joy to read and savour while the well-rounded characters draw you deeper into the story.
Two minor problems did detract from my reading pleasure. First, the initial two chapters confused me slightly as they bounced me around in time, however, once Robert began his trip, I was hooked. Second, I was a little disappointed when some of the other characters took over too soon as narrators. I'd come to care for Robert and would have liked to have seen more of his reactions as the plight of the boat became clear. Also, fans of single or limited viewpoints may find the use of multiple viewpoints, especially later in the story, a little disconcerting.
All in all, though, this book is well worth reading for the fascinating slice of small town Ontario life in the early 20th century and the beautiful prose. Especially recommended for Canadian members of the HNS.
This review first appeared in the May 2001 issue of The Historical Novels Review.
© Teresa Eckford, 2002