This is a book with a surprisingly tight plot. I say surprisingly because there are a lot of plot lines going on here and yet each one is compelling, thoughtful, and well fleshed-out. There’s a murdered French trapper, a remote Hudson Bay Company fort, a Norwegian religious community, the twenty year disappearance of two young girls, among others.
Our story starts and is centred in the remote communities of Caulfield and Dove River. This is northern Canada in the 1860s. It’s isolated, it’s cold; the people live hard, simple lives where survival takes work. As is true of Canadian history, most characters have come from elsewhere. The exception being, of course, the First Nations peoples with whom the European settlers have varied and tenuous relationships. (Now explain what is meant by “Old Stock Canadians”, if you’ll grant me a political aside!) The body of an independent trapper, Laurent Jammet, is discovered by Mrs. Ross, a local farmer’s wife. While the story switches amongst characters, Mrs. Ross is the only voice given in first person, something I found to be an odd and not really necessary stylistic choice.
Jammet has clearly been murdered and so representatives of the Hudson Bay Company are called in to investigate. Mrs. Ross quickly realizes that her seventeen-year-old son, Francis, has been missing since the time of Jammet’s murder. The story branches out from there with more characters introduced and multiple journeys into the wild. You have characters tracking other characters who are themselves being tracked, all circling around the question of who killed Jammet and why. Does it have to do with a missing shipment of valuable furs? Or a possible link to evidence of a written Aboriginal language? Or is it a crime of a more passionate nature?
Penney does very well at creating a number of diverse and realistic characters who live in this unforgiving place. This isn’t a time or a location that invites a lot of philosophy or introspection and the characters portray this. These are people concerned with surviving each day. Even a man’s murder is more important because of its repercussions than because of the fact of a human death.
For the most part, the way the story splits off into multiple places and characters is done well and makes sense in the context given. The only strand that I thought could have easily been removed was the Norwegian religious colony. As well, there is a story woven in about the disappearance of two sisters years earlier that seemed more sensational than anything else and its conclusion rang slightly false.
Penney excels with description. The cold of Northern Canada, especially, comes across in biting detail and we are continuously reminded of the fine line that keeps these characters from death. And how sometimes a person might survive everything the wild can give them but die at the hands of another.
Next Book Review: Death Benefits by Sarah N. Harvey