In 1867 in the small Canadian town of Caulfield a French trapper Laurent Jammet, is murdered. His body is discovered by a neighbour, Mrs Ross, whose own son Francis disappears at around the same time and some of the town’s inhabitants think he might have killed Jammet. However a friend of Jammet’s, a mixed-race trapper named Parker, is also suspected of the murder and is arrested. When Hudson’s Bay Company men are sent for to sort out the legalities they are unsure of who has committed the crime and eventually set out to search for Francis Ross in the dangerous, snow-covered wilderness.
Set exactly 100 years before I was born, what struck me particularly about this book was its sense of time and place. The simple problems of staying alive in such a harsh environment without access to any conveniences of our modern world were starkly portrayed. Several incidents in the small town’s history reveal how easy it must have been to die a fairly grim death in this new world. The book also depicts the political setting in the way society was governed for the most part by ‘the Company’ (a fur trading company that acted as a de facto government in much of Canada during this period) using a fairly basic system of justice that placed white men squarely at the top of the food chain.
There are a lot of characters in this book which makes it hard for very many of them to be depicted in much depth. I think the book might have been more successful for me if there were fewer characters explored more deeply. The standout exception is the character of Mrs Ross who is particularly well-drawn and is also the only one who reveals anything much about her past before the events of this book. Her willingness to undergo any amount of hardship and face any danger in fierce protectiveness of her son is both believable and very engaging and her journey, particularly during the second half of the book, is worth reading for its own sake.
As a work of crime fiction I found the book less successful than as a piece of historical fiction as the solving of the mystery is not really the heart of the novel and even seems to be forgotten for several large chunks of the narrative. For me the book did stretch the bounds of narrative credibility at a couple of points (there were so many separate groups trailing each other through the wilderness they just about needed traffic lights) but I did thoroughly enjoy being transported virtually back to this time (all the while thanking my lucky stars for being born at a time offering more creature comforts to women in particular) and the personal journey of Mrs Ross is worth reading for its own sake.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
My rating 3.5/5
Publisher Quercus ; ISBN 9781905204823; Length 420 pages
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦