Monday, April 17, 2017

Wilderness gothic: Sarah Maine's Beyond the Wild River

There was a beauty to this place, wild and unspoilt, vivid and sharp. Between the roar of the rapids there were stretches of exquisite calm water where the river widened along its course to form narrow lakes which sparkled with a piercing clarity...

Sarah Maine's work pays homage to the world's wild, remote places. Amid the forests of northwestern Ontario, thousands of miles from their home in the Scottish Borders, the characters of her second novel commune with nature: breathing in the scents of spruce and woodsmoke, catching and cooking fish for their suppers, and sleeping in tents along the banks of the Nipigon River.

Their relative isolation from all things familiar and safe heightens the sense of discovery but brings considerable risks. Several members of the expedition have unfinished business from five years ago that’s brought back into the open, and this time there's no running from it.

One might call this novel "wilderness gothic." As appropriate to the genre, we have a young ingĂ©nue as the heroine: Evelyn Ballantyre, age nineteen in 1893, relatively sheltered, and “lovely” (as we’re told a few times). Recently Evelyn’s father, a prominent Scottish philanthropist and investor, had misinterpreted an innocent act of hers – it appeared she was becoming too friendly with a servant – and she’s been paying the price.

Rather than continue to keep her cooped up at home as punishment, Charles Ballantyre decides to bring her on an excursion he'd planned to North America, to see the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and then to points north, across Lake Michigan and past the frontier town of Port Arthur (which will later become the city of Thunder Bay). There, they’ll fish in the “world’s finest trout stream.” Evelyn yearns to see more of the world, and for the chance to prove that she deserves to be treated as an adult.

To the surprise of both, one of their guides in the frontier turns out to be James Douglas, the former Ballantyre House stable hand who was accused of killing a poacher on their land five years earlier, and who had fled for parts unknown to save his neck. Back then, James and Evelyn had been good friends. Ever since, the sense of injustice toward him had weighed on her mind.

Their unlikely meeting isn’t the only coincidence in this atmospheric novel, whose story flows in a leisurely fashion for most of the book, then amps up the suspense toward the end – rather like waters in a peaceful stream gaining speed as they edge toward a waterfall. There are flashbacks here and there, and they’re not always smoothly inserted. However, the mystery itself is complex and interesting, with distinct aspects revealed little by little. Both Evelyn and her father know more about that night of the poacher’s murder than they dare reveal, to each other or to anyone else – including the friends accompanying them.

Maine crafts breathtaking turns of phrase that brings her settings alive. She recreates the era with a fine hand, too, with the Industrial Revolution bringing a revolution in technological developments. Scenes at Chicago’s White City explore these transformative changes. The author also offers period-appropriate commentary, through Evelyn’s eyes, on the land’s native peoples, who feature in exhibits at the World’s Fair – a shameful episode – but who negotiate with intelligence and foresight as their “old ways” are encroached upon.

Ironically, in this female-centered historical novel, it proves to be the men – James and Charles – who have the most layers to their personalities. But for readers with a yen to explore the “wild and unspoilt” lands depicted here, it takes a worthwhile journey.

Beyond the Wild River will be published tomorrow by Atria/Simon & Schuster in trade pb/ebook (I read it from an Edelweiss e-copy).

Added 4/19: Read more about Sarah Maine's inspiration for the novel in a post for the H is for History site, Researching the Nipigon River.


  1. Another one to add to my list! And I'll put in a Collection Development Request for it at work :)

    1. Oh good! I was thinking this must have been a fun book to research, especially if it involved on-site visits. It brought back memories of when I used to go camping in the woods of northern Michigan, although even that wasn't as remote as the places in the book!

  2. Hallo, Hallo,

    I'm following through the book blogosphere seeing what other readers felt as they read this title, as I posted my review for it myself today. Some of the aspects of the book were a miss for me - similar to what you've mentioned, the segues between the current narrative scope and the flashback sequences were a bit off for me, as well. I was so invested in some of the current situations, it felt sad to flipback through the past at those intersections.

    I truly did enjoy certain parts of the story-line (which I outlined) but overall, I found the ending to be disappointing. It wasn't as good of a fit for me as much as I hoped it might have been; which is why I appreciated reading other reviews where the story resonated more with a reader.

    I think we each took away something different and that's wicked good too, as we all soak inside stories with a different perspective. I am thankful someone else mentioned the plight of the exhibitors at the World's Fair; as I did find Maine was able to offer critical insight on things that would affect Evelyn's sense of morality and ideals; of seeing that the world is not always fair nor equal.

    Loved how you wrote your review and I do need to return again; I like your style as it reminds me of my own approach.

    1. Thanks very much!

      It's always interesting to read what others thought of the book - I hadn't read other reviews before posting mine, so am going back to see different takes on it now.

      Without giving any spoilers about what happened, I'll say that I didn't mind the ending - part of which was left open - but I understand why it was written that way.

  3. I enjoyed Sarah Maine's first novel, so I'm looking forward to reading this one. Love the term "wilderness gothic"!

    1. Thanks! I enjoyed her first novel also, especially the descriptions of the remote Scottish island and its history. She has a talent for writing about natural places.

  4. I echo the good words about Maine's first book, "The House Between Tides," and look forward to this one too.