CM . . .
. Volume XXII Number 16. . . .December 18, 2015
Alone: A Winter in the Woods.
Felicity Sidnell Reid. Illustrated by Jirina Marton.
n.p., Hidden Brook Press, 2015.
277 pp., trade pbk., $24.95.
Grades 5-10 / Ages 10-15.
Review by Ruth Latta.
All that day, John slept fitfully. When he woke, the grandmother rose from her seat beside the fire and gave him water or more medicine. Sometimes she put cold wet rushes on his forehead or wiped his face with a piece of cloth she fetched from a container of melting snow outside the door. The cabin was quiet. They seemed to be alone, but in the afternoon he found Bonnie [the dog] was lying beside him, her dark eyes fixed on his face...His eyes filled with tears as he realized how weak he was.
It was dark before the rest of the Ojibwa family returned. John was feeling a little better... The terrible headache of the previous night had left him and though his chest was still very painful his breathing was improving. He was able to count the family as they filed in. The tall man, followed by his wife carrying a baby on her back, the boy and two small girls entered silently...
“We are staying here with you this night. We will feed the animals. Keep the camp safe.”
John wondered if God had sent them, but was afraid such a question might be misunderstood, so he only said, “Thank you, I shall be very glad of your company.”
A cairn at Presqui'le, ON, commemorating Obediah Turner and his family, the first settlers in the area, inspired Felicity Sidnell Reid to write Alone: A Winter in the Woods. The United Empire Loyalist Turners left New York state in 1784, first settling in the colony of Nova Scotia. Then Mr. Turner moved the family to Adolphustown, Upper Canada (now part of the town of Napanee, ON) and claimed the 200 hundred acres offered to Loyalists by the government. His land was at the eastern end of Cramahe Township in Newcastle District.
In the winter of 1797, he and his 13-year-old son, John, came to claim their land. After building a rudimentary cabin for shelter, he left his son John to mind the place and livestock and returned to Adolphustown to help his wife prepare for their springtime move to their new home, travelling on Lake Ontario by bateau.
Alone is presented mostly through the eyes of 13-year-old John, with passages at intervals from the journal of (fictional) 14-year-old Josephine Fontaine, his parents' ward. Josephine spent her early life in Montreal, but when her fur trader father failed to return one spring, her mother decided to journey via the St. Lawrence and the Great Lakes to Detroit where she had relatives and might find news of her husband. Mme Fontaine fell ill at Adolphustown and died, and during the time frame of the story, Josephine is living with the Turners and helping with the housework and younger children.
Josephine provides a girl's presence in what would otherwise be an all-male story. She also represents one of Canada's founding nations. Her situation shows the vulnerability of unattached women in a pioneer environment. Lonely and recovering from the trauma of her mother's death, Josephine faces unwanted advances by a young man several years older than she, someone who won't take no for an answer.
The main focus, however, is John's sojourn in the wilderness. Through his experiences, Reid conveys information on pioneer life and skills, such as how to build a log cabin and how to make a bucket to collect maple syrup. John faces the inevitable stormy weather, encounters with wolves, a menacing stranger, a near-drowning and resulting illness, and benevolent indigenous people who nurse him back to health. These events may or may not interest the reader, depending on how many other pioneer novels he or she has read. The title of Chapter Eight, “Work, work and more work”, sums up much of the novel and reminded me of the saying: “All work and no joy makes Jack a dull boy.”
John's methods of coping with solitude are interesting and potentially of interest to young readers who are lonely. As well as keeping busy, he makes companions of the animals, most notably his dog, Bonnie; he sings sea shanties and hymns; keeps a calendar and writes one sentence a day on the sheet of paper that the Methodist circuit rider, Mr. Black, was able to spare for him. He prays and reads the Bible that Mr. Black gave to him. The circuit rider is an interesting character, and I would have liked to have seen more of him. John's Ojibwa friend, Opichi, at first thinks that John was alone in the wilderness on a vision quest, but, although John matures and gains self-confidence from the rigors of his isolation, he has no epiphanies; his inner self remains essentially what it was on arriving in the bush.
The arrival of the Ojibwas and the altercation with the pedlar add excitement, but the ending is anti-climactic. The illustrations by Jirina Marton, a Colborne, ON, artist who studied in her native Prague and in Paris, suit a novel set in the late eighteenth century and capture the rigors of daily life and the bleakness of winter. The novel's reading and discussion guide at the end indicate that Alone was a labour of love by an author who wants to share with a younger generation her interest in pioneer life and the United Empire Loyalists.
Ruth Latta's most recent novel, for grown-ups, is Most of All on Amazon Kindle. Her most recent young people's novel is The Songcatcher and Me.
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