Beyond the wild river by Sarah Maine
Hodder and Stoughton, 2017. ISBN 9781473639683
(Age: Senior secondary-adult) Recommended. This is a terrifically well researched novel, and the story, and indeed the plot, are finely wrought. I was captivated by the settings, described in rich detail, from the new city of Chicago to the wild lands and rivers of northern Ontario. Responding with violence to a burglar, one dark night on a Scottish estate, a man is killed, a story is constructed, and a very young Evelyn Ballantyre learns one version of events that she accepts but with both a sense of having been told what was best for her to know and a feeling that this version was not the true story.
From a Scottish estate to the wilds of Ontario, Maine captures a world of change, taking us from Scotland, on a sea voyage to the United States in 1893, where the characters visit the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, described in rich and fascinating detail, and then go into the wilds of Canada to inspect, we deduce, an investment of Evelyn's father. This is a fine section, introducing us to a little known area and history for most readers outside of Canada or the USA.
The story that ensues is a sequel, in a sense, to that terrible night on Evelyn's father's estate in Scotland. Strangely, and indeed oddly, it seems that the characters who were at the estate on the night of the murder have come together for a journey up the Nipigon River, in Northern Ontario, 13 years later. We realize that Ballantyne has controlled all of this, with the characters of the past all in close proximity for a trip that will be challenging.
Whilst it is not clear to us just what will happen, we are given plenty of clues so that we are aware that some kind of dramatic event will take place as the tension builds up day by day on that journey. The terrain is described in wonderful detail, the atmosphere of the Nipigon River and the campsites particularly featuring as places of wonder for the European visitors. We read about the way that campsites were positioned near the river, how the fish were caught, and we learn something of the indigenous people of that region. All of this is absolutely captivating.
That the conflict would be resolved is expected, but somehow the resolution is just a little tawdry, and the characters involved in it demeaned by the decisions. Yet in a sense the decisions and actions are consistent with the characterization. Just as we readers might have liked a happy ending, her resolution is consistent with her characterization. Her strengths are in this narrative consistency, in her richly detailed settings, and in her capacity to create a story that is reminiscent of its time, its place and the characters that she has created. This is a fine adult and older adolescent romantic and historical novel.