Patrick Gale’s talent for creating sympathetic characters who survive in dire circumstances is at its best in A Place Called Winter, his most recent novel, set in Edwardian England and the prairie lands of Canada. The cover itself reveals Gale’s passion for painting extraordinary landscapes which reflect his characters, allowing them to fully develop and play out their dramas. The story of Old Harrovian Harry Cane is rolled out during the period immediately preceding the Great War, in the harsh environment of the as-yet barely settled territories, torn from the hands of the Cree Indians, where a parcel of land passes to settler ownership after he has cultivated it for three years.
Blackmailed by his middle class brother-in-law, Harry Cane (Hurry Cane to his former school friends) leaves England, abandoning a wife and daughter and his life of moneyed indolence, to try to make a living as a farmer in the New World. Here, Gale’s sense of place lies in the detail, evidence of the author’s intense research into the exhausting work of the settler farmer: the bell tent in which he must begin his isolated existence, the bareness of the hut he must build with his own hands, and the starkness of the unbroken earth he must tame for his own purposes. Even the name of the settlement, Winter (a real place), draws the reader further into Gale’s world of vast horizons and equally vast possibilities.
This beautifully written and most engaging story, although full of personal tragedy, is ultimately one of hope – of hope for happiness and looking to the future – in a deeply compassionate and intelligent way. Indeed, it reflects the current Zeitgeist in its subtle and clever development and characterisations. In the lonely and sometimes desperate circumstances which face these inhabitants of rural Canada in the early 20th Century, the problems with which the Western World has struggled in very recent years – the place of homosexuality in society, attitudes to transgender individuals (“two-souls”, as they are known in Cree Indian tradition), attitudes to restructured families, to domestic abuse, to death and mental health issues, to racism and colonialism – are dealt with in this place where survival itself must remain the prime objective, as if they are quite simply issues to be approached in a low-key and pragmatic way within the family, relatively untroubled by the views and laws of the outside world.
The sensitivity with which Gale approaches and develops his themes may be explained, in part, by the fact that his tale is based (“loosely”, according to the author) on the mystery surrounding his great-grandfather, who disappeared over the horizon in the direction of Canada in the first decade of the last century. Even his name remains unchanged in the novel, as do the names of female characters from the fictional Harry Cane’s life in England: Aunt Pattie, the gaiety dancer and actress is based on Gale’s Great-Aunt Pattie and the snobbish Mrs Wells is based on his own grandmother, Winnifred Wells. Evil, in the guise of the Danish land agent, Troels, appears at every juncture, causing misery and chaos, but is ultimately defeated by Harry Cane in a kind of “Crime and Punishment” scenario. This reader suspects that Troels may well be the only character in the novel not based on a member of Gale’s own family.
The episodic format of this book allows the story of the gentle Harry Cane’s breakdown and his incarceration in a psychiatric hospice to break up the slower development of the tale of his final recognition of his own identity in an age when little or no acceptable language existed to express the emotions he experiences As this profoundly personal narrative unfolds, Gale’s reader becomes more and more aware of the writer’s desire to create a deeper appreciation of the social progress which is one of the great triumphs of our own century.