Anne McDonald has been writing for many years, with publications in magazines such as “Descant” and broadcasts on CBC radio. In To The Edge of the Sea, her first book, she takes us on a journey into Canada’s past, the time of Confederation, the formation of a country. Her themes include connection, loss, risk, and hope.
We meet John Alexander Macdonald, future first prime minister of Canada, who walks a metaphorical tightrope as he attempts to balance the wishes of the disparate regions. Young fisherman Alex leaves his home and family on Prince Edward Island, and boards a ship to follow the circus because he is fascinated by the tightrope walkers. Alex’s older brother Reggie is left behind, but finds his own way to leave the fishing life by joining the Tenant Leaguers, in order to improve the lot of tenant farmers. Mercy Coles, twenty-six years old, encounters John A. Macdonald at a social event, then follows, with other supporters, to Quebec City. At a dinner, “All of them laughed at McGee’s story of how the tightrope walker Farini had offered to wheel Governor General Monck across Montmorency Falls, blindfolded.”
Anne McDonald’s prose sings with the sound of waves, moves us with the pull of water and sand, and enriches our reading with metaphor. We care about the characters as they make their journeys, hoping to find fulfillment. We want the best for them. To the Edge of the Sea won the 2011 Saskatchewan Book Award for First Book.
At 162 pages, this is a fairly fast and easy read, though you will want to linger over some passages and reread others. The book may also send you to the library or the internet to research the history.
In her Acknowledgements, McDonald writes, “Although I have used real people and events in this book I have freely fictionalized intents and events, dates and situations, and all should be read as fiction.” Despite this, it is fascinating to discover that Mercy Cole was a real person, whose unpublished diary of the Quebec Conference resides in the National Archives of Canada. The Great Farini was an adventurer and performer, whose most famous tightrope performances at Niagara Falls occurred in 1860. The Tenant Union of Prince Edward Island advocated for the sale of land to the farmers, and its members demonstrated in Charlottetown in 1864. Of course, John A. Macdonald and other politicians mentioned also lived.
Anne McDonald evokes places as carefully as she develops plot, though this is more of a lyrical novel than a plot driven one. Details such as the unusually warm Prince Edward Island fall, and the October rains of Quebec City and the resulting rock slide near the Plains of Abraham, help to create immediacy for historical events and anchor the characters in a real world. We are moved back and forth between locations, and between the main characters’ points of view.
To the Edge of the Sea brings history alive through the art and inventions of fiction.
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