And check out this cover! Is it as cheesy as the cover makes it look? Surprisingly, not at all. Yes, the main character is the brooding type, but most of this book has nothing at all to do with the romantic plot (although, there is one).
Neil has returned to Oak Falls after being away for 13 years. First he went off to join the war (WWII), then he studied forestry and worked in Northern Ontario. When he comes home, he only plans to stay a short time. He seems to feel contempt for his small village in rural Nova Scotia that probably has a lot to do with his unfortunate childhood. His mother left, his father hung himself, and he spent the rest of his childhood with his stern grandmother.
The rest, the human relics of that pleasant time of the big timber and the easy prosperity, lived on in the old houses by the river, alone like my grandmother, or an old man and wife, or a pair of bachelor brothers or spinsters, moving about like shabby phantoms amongst the solid furniture. You seldom saw them out of doors except on Sunday mornings, when the clang of the church bell drew them forth like a summons, to come and be counted, as the harsh bell at the Stalag used to call us out of the barracks. And that was the way I thought of them now, as prisoners, the survivors of some strange kind of war that had been going on so long that nobody could remember what it was about.
Now he’s come back for one more visit and to say goodbye (so he tells himself). Could he really be wondering what has become of his high school sweetheart Louise?
He finds his grandmother living in the same house, although now with a caregiver from the “Hollow” who comes to spend the days with her. He talks about the founding families of Oak Falls and their grand houses, and then there are the families who live down the “Old Back Roads” (“Back Roaders”) and Beaver Hollow. The Back Roads is where the young teacher is from – the one who stays with Neil’s grandmother overnight so she is never alone.
He soon discovers that his grandmother did love him, and loves him still. He also visits with a couple of old friends who are very happy to see he’s alive and that he didn’t die in the war. He spends some time in the wilderness with another old friend–one of the men from the Mi’kmaw community–they go for weeks at a time.
The day was hot and the black flies swarmed in the woods, but the breeze kept them off the river and it was good to be there. I was happy. The old charm of the stolen journeys when I was a boy came back: the river running flat in the green canyon like a street in a deserted city, and overhead the blue ribbon of sky winding faithfully with the stream, and no sound but the quick plunge of paddles made exactly together and the chuckle of water under the thrust, and then, exactly together, the lift and the forward flash of wet blades, the hiss of water dripping from them, and again the plunge; and always the easy rhythm from buttocks to shoulders to wrists, and the canoe swaying with these regular movements so that it felt alive under you as a ridden horse is alive, and the horse one body with yours like a centaur’s; and with all this skillful energy the canoe stem slitting the bright skin of the river like a knife in silk.
This is where Neil discovers that there might be something fishy going on with the timber lots and their elected government official.
This politician, Sam, also happens to be the father-in-law of Louise. And Neil and Louise have been visiting twice a week in a field between their houses. And, of course, we don’t feel sorry at all for Louise’s husband because he’s busy having very blatant affairs with other women. Not that Neil and Louise are exactly having an affair… not yet, anyway. But these sour relationships become significant when Neil is accused of a crime – if these things come up in court it’s going to look very bad for him.
I’m going to try not to tell you anymore of what happens, in case you decide to read the book for yourself. But I will say that there are a couple of surprises, a court case, and an ending I feel conflicted about. Why did he do what he did? I guess, all along, Neil just wanted to “get out of the shadows and be free.”
The star of this book is the writing. There are flaws with the story–mostly to do with the time in which it was written; women are morally defective if they have affairs, but it’s not a big deal if men do; the men from the Mi’kmaw community are portrayed in a stereotypical way (yet it was still nice to have them in the story–at least the fact of their existence wasn’t ignored altogether). But there is no flaw in the writing. His descriptive passages of the countryside and the wilderness are lovely to read, and there is a real interest and concern with the forest and how it is being used. Raddall knows his home and subject well.
In the morning the weather changed abruptly, as it often does in the Nova Scotia spring, with a wind up the river from the sea, a wind in which you can smell the salt and kelp, and a fog drifting through the trees like smoke. Rain always follows, cold and bleak, slanting down on the wind.
Raddall can also be funny, or poke fun by stating the obvious…
You can say what you like about radio and television and all the other marvels of the electronic age, but in country villages like Oak Falls the party-line telephone is still the most important invention since the sulphur match.
“Finest scandal in the village since a young preacher, forty-odd year ago, used to swim acrost the river nights to play hanky-panky with a young widda.”
I had a hunch that his part in raising the food was precisely his part in raising the family, a matter of seeding and letting the womenfolk take care of the rest.
Some things never change…
The world lives in a queer jangle nowadays. Maybe you have to go up the Old Back Roads to find people who still have the secret of tranquility.
… the books of my father’s choice I had read to rags and cardboard. I’d had a lot of time for reading in those days. Time far into the nights, with a wigwam of blanket over the electric lamp and the book and myself lest my grandmother see the glint beneath the door.
Time is hard to kill without a weapon when you’re alone, and for me the decent weapon has always been something to read. I once spent fifteen days cooped in a shack in the Ontario bush with nothing better than an old mail-order catalogue and a pamphlet of the Geological Survey, and at the end of that time I could recite word for word anything from the Paleozoic sediments around Hudson Bay to the price and style of female underwear in the early days of the Depression.
Just a plain and simple good line…
The candle glow made a nimbus of her cropped white hair. All wild from her pillow, the hair shot forth glints as if she were the Statue of Liberty grown old and stepping down to make way for something else.
Other books by Thomas Raddall I’ve read and written about: