In a finely wrought first novel, Maclean’s journalist Bemrose asks probing questions about loyalty as he chronicles the terrible year that destroys a Canadian mill town.
The story is about place—Attawan, a riverside Ontario town—as well as about a family, the Walkers, who live modestly on the small island connected by bridges to the town. Both are forever changed when, in 1966, the Bannerman textile mill, the town’s major employer, mysteriously burns down. After the fire, the story moves back to 1965, when everything began to change. The Walkers would seem to be a typical family. Father Alf works, as his father did, at the mill, his English warbride Margaret takes care of the house, and their three children—Joe, Jamie, and Penny—attend local schools. But the Walkers aren’t quite like everyone else. Alf, haunted by memories of his war years in Europe, longs to start his own business, Margaret feels she has married down, and Joe wants to be a historian, not a mill worker. When a conglomerate buys out the mill, Alf finds himself torn between loyalty to his fellow workers and his own ambitions. His friends want him to join a union, but management promises the job of foreman if he names the union members. He thinks he can do both without causing harm, but as workers are fired and a friend commits suicide, Alf, stricken with guilt, begins to drink and to cheat on Margaret. Meanwhile, Joe, a rising senior, falls in love with new student Anna. Anna, whose father is a mill executive, is also a poet, but she’s reluctant to commit to Joe, hinting at sorrows in her past. When the mill is abruptly closed and a fire breaks out, Alf sees a chance of redemption—but it involves a decision that will blight his family’s lives and hopes.
From a writer to be watched: a sobering reminder of the costs of change.