Reynolds, in his debut, offers a well-researched historical family saga set on the Canadian frontier.
The Dunbars, a family of Scottish farmers in the 19th century, are struggling financially. Looking for a more profitable, sustainable life elsewhere, two Dunbars travel to Canada to establish a new farmstead: Tom, a ne’er-do-well fleeing a local scandal involving an illegitimate pregnancy; and his older brother, Rob, a mature but brooding man who plans to marry a steadfast woman. Once in Canada, they face a series of difficulties, including illness, forbidden love and troubles with native tribes (most notably the Sioux). The novel’s foremost conflict, however, lies between the brothers themselves—the responsible older one trying to keep the family together, the younger one fighting to become “his own man.” This conflict is an old one, of course, and little elevates Reynolds’ version, or his characters, above the stereotypical; for example, there’s a fiery redhead named Kate, “with a defiant spirit that matched the flame of her hair.” There’s little plot here, just an accumulation of stock situations. Researched with a historian’s precision, the overall setting is convincing, and Reynolds’ descriptions of the landscape occasionally show flair. However, the prose becomes leaden elsewhere, striving too hard for profundity; for example, Reynolds writes that a character “deliberately turned his mind to contemplate” when the more economical “he thought” would have sufficed. The book strives for contemporary relevance, too, especially in its presentation of the “Indians” and the racism of the Canadian settlers; the final message—a variation of “why can’t we all just get along?”—is kind but trite, undercut by its stereotypical Native American characters.The author may wish to recall old adventure novels such as R.M. Ballantyne’s The Young Fur-Traders (1856) and John Buchan’s Prester John (1910), but some of those tales’ cringe-inducing aspects are best left to the past.
A well-meaning but ultimately flat historical novel that’s heavy with detail but short on style.