A debut novel chronicles the rising and falling fortunes of a Canadian gold mining and fishing town through the eyes of a local boy.
After spending five years in college and earning two degrees, Billy Potter returns to his hometown on the northwestern British Columbia coast during World War I. He’s a passenger on the Aniak, a supply ship that makes a monthly journey to Stella’s Cove, an isolated village that is now almost deserted. His mother, a religious fanatic and alcoholic, is ailing and Billy plans a one-month stay. During Billy’s journey, the town’s tumultuous past is described, including its first rise to glory as a center for the fur trade, another run at prosperity during the gold rush, and a later boom after a salmon-processing plant becomes successful. Prosperity never lasts for long (“like the instability of the glacier that hung menacingly over it, the town of Stella’s Cove was always on a precipitous footing”). When the fur and gold are gone, the Aniak stops coming and desperate residents attempt escapes by land and sea, usually with unfortunate consequences. Billy flees to a university at age 18, but not without having suffered for years at the hands of the Rev. Miles Cromwell, the strict Methodist preacher and schoolmaster whose violent ways leave several students permanently injured. At Cromwell’s direction, the moral code of the town lacks kindness and honesty, which results in several tragic outcomes. The anti-science fervor that rages leads to conflict with a new schoolteacher and eventually poisons Stella’s Cove’s economy. Robinson’s historical novel is packed with illuminating tales about this remote town’s misfortunes, many of them compelling and beautifully described, no matter how dire the situations. While the sapphire-blue glacier hovering over Stella’s Cove remains a source of wonder, the author conveys the fear that Billy and the other residents have of its deadly potential. More than just a boomtown story, the novel makes a strong statement about morality, revealing the different ways that gossip and rigid and unfeeling religious views spark the village’s eventual upheaval. Although the digressive book is strongly written, there is some repetition of events and certain points are hammered home many times (including the emotional impact of the death of the narrator’s father).
An insightful tale that digs deep into the rugged history of British Columbia.