I read A Place Called Winter for my Walter Scott Prize project, the second book I’ve read for the 2016 list. Like one of the other books I read recently for that project, Arctic Summer, it has as a major theme the main character’s homosexuality. However, I found myself feeling much closer to the characters and more interested in the plot of this novel than I did for Arctic Summer.
At the beginning of the novel, Harry Cane is being treated, or rather mistreated, in an asylum in Canada. Shortly thereafter, he is transferred to an experimental center that treats the patients much more humanely. We understand that Harry has committed a crime, but we don’t know what it is. Between short chapters about his life at the center, we learn what brought him there.
The story of Harry’s life begins when his wealthy father dies. His brother Jack is still in school, and Harry undertakes his education and expenses. Harry is a man of no occupation who feels that he would like one, but he doesn’t know what to do about it. He feels vaguely that he would like to work an estate or a farm but thinks he has to be born to it. A shy man with an occasional stammer, he likes reading and horses. Eventually, he marries a shy woman, Winnie, who informs him on their wedding night that she loves someone else. Nevertheless, he cares for his wife and loves his daughter.
An investment recommendation by his brother-in-law takes a large part of Harry’s inheritance, and Harry and his family are forced to move in with his in-laws. He is an innocent-minded person, so it is not until he meets an actor named Browning that he realizes he is homosexual. He begins an affair with Browning, but then disaster strikes. His affair is exposed to his in-laws by a blackmailer and Harry is forced out of the family. Even his brother Jack, whom he loves, is pressured by his wife not to correspond with him.
Now totally alone, Harry emigrates to Canada and ends up in Saskatchewan, which is just being opened to settlement by the arrival of the Grand Trunk Railway. On shipboard, he meets Troels Munck, who finds him a position where he can learn farming and then helps him purchase a homestead. Munck, though, is a bully, and from the moment Harry meets him, we know that relationship will not end well.
Harry finds that a farmer’s life suits him. He settles in, works hard, and makes friends. But we know where he is at the beginning of the book, so the tension builds as we find out how he got there.
Although the time spent to get him to Canada, where the book really captured me, seems a little long, by the time he gets there, we know Harry very well. He is a kind and polite person, but he earns our respect when he finds his niche. Eventually, I became deeply involved in his story. It was also interesting in its details of early homesteading and treatment of mental illness.
This Godforsaken Place
Giants in the Earth