Alone: A Winter in the Woodsrecounts a true Canadian adventure on the frontier. On a deeper level, it is a story about courage, self-reliance, love and community, about accepting responsibility for not only doing things right but doing the right thing, so that the common good is served. Author Felicity Sidnell Reid adroitly weaves these two themes together so that venture and virtue become a unified narrative that both enthralls and elevates.
The adventure plays out in the late 18thcentury as Upper Canada is being slowly settled by families cutting land-grant farms from virgin forest. United Empire Loyalist Elias Turner accompanied by his 13-year-old son is on his way from the Kingston area of Ontario to the Belleville area in mid-winter by ox-drawn sled to claim his land. After building a tiny cabin, Elias must leave his son with the oxen at the cabin and return to Adolphustown for the rest of the winter. There, he will care for his wife and remaining children until the spring thaw allows them all to travel to their new home along the shore of Lake Ontario by boat with the rest of their belongings.
This captivating novel, based on fact, tells two complementary stories. The principal adventure is seen through the eyes of the 13-year-old John who, entirely alone in the bush for several months, must care for the farm animals and, in spring, plant a vegetable garden to feed the family when they arrive. The second story is told by 14-year-old Joséphine Fontaine. Joséphine, originally from Montreal, was orphaned when her father disappeared and her mother died in Adolphustown as they made their way west to look for him. Elias and his wife have given her a home in return for her help with the younger Turner children. This happy device allows the author not only to provide a complete picture of these several months while the family is separated, but also to show the reader what it was like to be an adolescent boy and an adolescent girl on the north shore of Lake Ontario in the 1790s.
Felicity Sidnell Reid’s skill as a historian, observer of humanity and wordsmith allows her to add depth and nuance to this story in the detail with which she presents the routines of everyday life, the human themes she addresses, and the incisiveness of the language she employs. Here is a writer who is not merely conscious of Canada’s early colonial period and the personal and moral challenges that faced her settlers, but one who has succeeded in presenting them in a most insightful and engaging way.
Both principal characters are captivating. For the greater part of the story, John is physically isolated from his family and lives entirely without neighbors save for the occasional passing trader, Ojibway band or circuit rider. Perforce he must learn how to best cope. Josephine, though living with the rest of Turner family in Adolphustown, is within an alien culture and not yet quite adapted to her new environment. John’s perspective allows us to see what is going on at the ‘sharp’ end of settlement where no roads or villages yet exist; Josephine’s graphically illustrates what a small colonial settlement was like in those days and the pressures that bore down on a lone and vulnerable young woman.
Both of the main characters live moments of natural beauty that feed spirituality and of violence that threatens their very existence. Both must learn how to handle themselves and their immediate worlds with insight, savvy and skill, if they are to survive misadventure or worse.
The narrative is masterfully built around crucial incidents and individuals who either threaten the security or come to the rescue of each of these two young people who, though only 70 miles apart are separated by dense wilderness caught in the grip of winter. John faces isolation, ferocious wild animals that threaten himself as well as his livestock, unforgiving snowstorms, pneumonia brought on by exposure, and a predatory and violent trader unsympathetic to the United Empire Loyalist cause and intent on taking advantage of a lone boy. Little stands between him and disaster but his own ingenuity, the uplifting ministry of an itinerant preacher of and a passing Ojibwa family. Josephine is still grieving over the disappearance of her father into the interior and the death of her mother. Though she is cared for by the Turner family, she knows not what will become of her when they move west to their land grant. She is paid rough court by a neighboring boy some years her senior in Adolphustown and fears his resentment at her aloofness to his attention. Salvation for Josephine, if there be any, comes in the form of a compassionate and observant adult and her own determination to protect her integrity.
Late eighteenth-century Ontario is a setting that many Canadians are unfamiliar with. The reader will enjoy the sense of daily life as it was lived by so many of the early settlers, with all the challenges that it brought and which we have largely forgotten. A measure of history helps us to arrive at a viable definition of who we are as a sovereign nation. This novel, with its lively and detailed account of how just one single family strove to settle the land grant they were awarded in Upper Canada at the turn of the 19thcentury, serves as a reminder — for those who need reminding — of how Canada came to be. For those who were unaware of the monumental personal struggle involved, it serves as a penetrative revelation.
I very much enjoyed this novel and learned a great deal from it. As a grandfather, I have strongly encouraged younger people to read and likewise enjoy and learn from it.
Alone: A Winter in the Woods offers something very important to the young reader. It presents the physical and moral world in all its challenging reality – an existence that can be negotiated successfully only by developing inner resources and practical skills. The settlement of Canada was undertaken not in any Harry Potter fantasy world in which success is guaranteed by the possession of magic wands and spells. Survival then – as today – depends on the conscious development of virtue, faith, competence and responsibility. By contrast, the fantasy worlds of J.K. Rowling eschew character, competence and virtue in favour of witchcraft and wizardry and so teach us nothing about how to live well.
Children, as they grow into adults, must learn that good things don’t happen simply because they utter magic words. Good is more likely to accrue if we strive to take responsibility, build our experience, redouble our efforts and increase our competence and our virtue. Felicity Sidnell Reid’s Alone: A Winter in the Woods redresses the balance away from mere magic selfishness towards the moral life of the family and the larger community where the ‘we’ is of greater importance than the ‘I’.