Dressed in buckskins, 19-year-old Ryan Long Pine sends his canoe into Canada's busy Kingston harbor. It is 1837 and he stands out: “Not yet an anachronism, he was a curiosity”. Alone in the world except for the raven who accompanies him, Ryan is not looking for adventure; he is looking for a job. Armed with good carpentry skills learned from his father and trapping skills learned from a stint with a family of Algonquins, he can fend for himself. His work ethic quickly endears him to the shipbuilder where he first applies.
Full of adventure, this story covers the period of the Patriot War, in which rebels attacked Canada eleven times, attempting to liberate it from British rule. The Patriots were a grass-roots organization of Canadians who had run afoul of the British and sympathetic Americans who wanted to extend their republican ideals to their neighbors.
Although he suffered injustice in his native Ireland and on arriving in Canada, Ryan has buried his resentment. His only goal is the quite ordinary one of wanting to find work and make a life for himself. As an Irishman, he refuses to fight for or take orders from the British who still run the colony, but he's not a fire-breathing revolutionary either. He just wants to be left alone. That's all he asks for.
McLaughlin's prose is smart and competent. Backstory is parceled out neatly, and there is a good mix of narrative and scenes. Dialect is used sparingly, with just enough to give the flavor of speech without being overdone.
One thing that would enhance this story is a little more complexity to the characters. Ryan is all good. He doesn't drink or smoke. He's honest and hard-working, trustworthy, loyal, brave, clean and reverent, as the oath goes. On the other hand, the bully he encounters is all bad: dishonest, mean, and vengeful. And ugly to boot: “an unkempt and overweight hunter. . . his jowls shook as his teeth mangled a plug of tobacco. . . his narrow eyes pits of hatred”. Vivid writing, to be sure, but some character shading would make the story more interesting.
This is a good example of a plot-driven story, as opposed to a character-driven story. And it's a terrific plot. Ryan falls in with Bill Johnston, the famous smuggler and river pirate in the Thousand Islands and begins helping with his smuggling operations. Johnston, like many other characters, are actual historical persons; McLaughlin's research is impressive. Ryan also gets involved with the Patriots and participates in some of their daring operations.
It's an exciting tale, tempered by scenes of celebration and solitude. Ryan falls in love with Johnston's daughter, Kate, and is torn between the undertakings of war and the joys of domesticity. Unfortunately, the ending rather trickled away without the expected climax, historically accurate but a bit disappointing. Still, I liked the way it echoed the beginning.
I knew nothing of the Patriot War before reading this novel and am grateful for the opportunity to expand my understanding of U.S./Canada relations. What historical novels have you enjoyed?
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a digital copy of this book free from the author. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.