This sweeping historical novel follows the titular pioneer from her adolescence to old age, cataloguing the early history of Canada in the context of her life.
Born in rural Canada in the mid-nineteenth century, Lily is introduced as a rough-hewn, taciturn, and uncompromising woman: uneducated and short on opportunity, but blessed with plenty of backbone. Orphaned following the death of her mother and abandonment by her father, she is taken in by her caring Aunt Bridie and Uncle Chester, who give her their last name, teach her farming, and instruct her in how to sell their wares at the weekend market. While not always a direct actor in them, Lily is often used to bear witness to the events of her time: the influx of escaped slaves from the Underground Railroad, a visit from the Prince of Wales, the unrelenting construction of railways in Canada, and so on. The young Prince Edward’s 1860 visit is one of the richer diversions in the novel: after meeting Lily, he swiftly fathers a daughter, who Lily is forced to give up to a wealthy Toronto family to be raised. Events such as this one characterize Lily’s life: beholden to a male-dominated society, and grimly accepting of her fate, all of it told in Gutteridge’s (The Rebellion Mysteries: Turncoat, Solemn Vows, Vital Secrets 2012, etc.) patient, lilting prose. One of the more affecting passages relays her courtship with the soldier Tom Marshall, a Londoner who eventually becomes Lily’s husband and the father to her children. A central narrative is eschewed in favor of an impressionistic portrayal of Lily’s life, however, with diversions not just accepted but the central feature of Gutteridge’s storytelling. What’s clear is that, while his sentence construction is at times lovely, he is in dire need of an editor: seemingly unable to separate an interesting historical fact from one that might be of service to his narrative, the novel comes across as shapeless and meandering. Much like a life, to be sure, but prioritizing historical meticulousness over a gripping narrative renders the book frustratingly unfocused.
An overlong epic where the historical detail obscures the human narrative at its heart.