In his debut historical novel, Mayer tells the story of a real-life 19th-century journalist, activist and hero.
Henry Albert “Bertie” Harper was born in Ontario in 1873 and began working in a newspaper office when he was still a child. As a young adult, he became interested in politics and free-speech issues and helped bring about big changes at the University of Toronto by organizing petitions and student strikes; there he roomed with future Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King. Harper later quit his newspaper job and helped establish the Canadian Department of Labour’s Labour Gazette. However, Harper’s story inexorably and tragically leads to one defining event: a skating party where he died, at age 28, in an unsuccessful attempt to save a drowning girl. Although the novel starts slowly and meanders a bit at times, Mayer ably brings the relatively obscure Harper and his world to life. Harper, as portrayed here, was not without his faults; for example, he pledges his love to a woman but has difficulty remaining loyal to her. That said, Harper’s innate sense of decency and justice shines throughout the novel. In his last moments, Harper is depicted remembering lines from a Tennyson poem: “Galahad cried, I thought. If I lose myself, I save myself.” His good friend King later arranged for an impressive statue of the Arthurian knight Sir Galahad to be erected in Ottawa in tribute to the heroic deed.
An intriguing novel about how one man left his mark on Canadian history.