Sarah Maine's work pays homage to the world's wild, remote places. Amid the forests of northwestern Ontario, thousands of miles from their home in the Scottish Borders, the characters of her second novel commune with nature: breathing in the scents of spruce and woodsmoke, catching and cooking fish for their suppers, and sleeping in tents along the banks of the Nipigon River.
Their relative isolation from all things familiar and safe heightens the sense of discovery but brings considerable risks. Several members of the expedition have unfinished business from five years ago that’s brought back into the open, and this time there's no running from it.
One might call this novel "wilderness gothic." As appropriate to the genre, we have a young ingénue as the heroine: Evelyn Ballantyre, age nineteen in 1893, relatively sheltered, and “lovely” (as we’re told a few times). Recently Evelyn’s father, a prominent Scottish philanthropist and investor, had misinterpreted an innocent act of hers – it appeared she was becoming too friendly with a servant – and she’s been paying the price.
Rather than continue to keep her cooped up at home as punishment, Charles Ballantyre decides to bring her on an excursion he'd planned to North America, to see the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and then to points north, across Lake Michigan and past the frontier town of Port Arthur (which will later become the city of Thunder Bay). There, they’ll fish in the “world’s finest trout stream.” Evelyn yearns to see more of the world, and for the chance to prove that she deserves to be treated as an adult.
To the surprise of both, one of their guides in the frontier turns out to be James Douglas, the former Ballantyre House stable hand who was accused of killing a poacher on their land five years earlier, and who had fled for parts unknown to save his neck. Back then, James and Evelyn had been good friends. Ever since, the sense of injustice toward him had weighed on her mind.
Their unlikely meeting isn’t the only coincidence in this atmospheric novel, whose story flows in a leisurely fashion for most of the book, then amps up the suspense toward the end – rather like waters in a peaceful stream gaining speed as they edge toward a waterfall. There are flashbacks here and there, and they’re not always smoothly inserted. However, the mystery itself is complex and interesting, with distinct aspects revealed little by little. Both Evelyn and her father know more about that night of the poacher’s murder than they dare reveal, to each other or to anyone else – including the friends accompanying them.
Maine crafts breathtaking turns of phrase that brings her settings alive. She recreates the era with a fine hand, too, with the Industrial Revolution bringing a revolution in technological developments. Scenes at Chicago’s White City explore these transformative changes. The author also offers period-appropriate commentary, through Evelyn’s eyes, on the land’s native peoples, who feature in exhibits at the World’s Fair – a shameful episode – but who negotiate with intelligence and foresight as their “old ways” are encroached upon.
Ironically, in this female-centered historical novel, it proves to be the men – James and Charles – who have the most layers to their personalities. But for readers with a yen to explore the “wild and unspoilt” lands depicted here, it takes a worthwhile journey.
Beyond the Wild River will be published tomorrow by Atria/Simon & Schuster in trade pb/ebook (I read it from an Edelweiss e-copy).
Added 4/19: Read more about Sarah Maine's inspiration for the novel in a post for the H is for History site, Researching the Nipigon River.