Trial by Winter

20 June 2019

Trial by Winter
by Anne Patton
Published by Coteau Books
Review by Michelle Shaw
$10.95 ISBN 9781550509786

I’ve always wondered what it would be like to live in a sod house in Saskatchewan during a winter blizzard. Now, thanks to Anne Patton, I have an inkling.

Trial by Winter is the third and final story in Anne Patton’s Barr Colony Adventure Series. It’s 1903 and the Bolton family have built a sod house on their land in the North-West Territories. Running desperately short of money Dorothy’s father decides to travel to Edmonton to work for the winter, leaving ten-year-old Dorothy, her sixteen-year-old sister, Lydia and their mother to face their first harsh prairie winter essentially alone.

Patton has the ability to transport the reader to another place and time in vivid detail, geographically, socially and climatically. She has clearly done an immense amount of meticulous research, but the research is always atmospheric and enhances the plot rather than crowding it.

She vividly describes the everyday practicalities that are needed to survive during the brutal winter such as bringing wood inside to thaw before cutting it and scooping snow from the drifts outside the front door during a blizzard to melt for water. Then there are the unforeseen calamities such as when the wall of the sod house begins to separate from the roof and lets in the frigid winter air and snow, and Lydia’s frightening accident when she chops her leg with the axe by mistake while cutting wood.

The books are based on the actual story of Dorothy Holtby Boan who was a child in the Barr Colony. Patton met Dorothy when the latter was 89 years old and taped her memories of the family’s first prairie winters. In the author’s note at the back of the book, Patton points out that “[i]n 1903 a thousand British settlers hunkered down for their first winter in the North-West Territories. They expected the weather to resemble winters they had experienced in the British Isles. Their disregard for local advice led to many dangerous encounters with the frigid temperatures.”

Patton also weaves real life figures into the narrative such as Dr. Elizabeth Matheson who was the first woman doctor in the North-Western Territories and Dr. William Amos, a frontier doctor who treats the fictional Lydia’s leg wound.

The first book in the series, Full Steam to Canada tells Dorothy’s story as she travels to Canada with her family from England in the early part of the twentieth century. The second book Through Flood and Fire picks up the family’s story in the little village of Saskatoon before they travel across the prairies and finally settle in the area surrounding the present-day town of Lloydminster.

Since retiring as an elementary school teacher, Anne Patton has published eleven books for children. Full Steam to Canada, the first book in the Barr Colony Series, was the winner of the Saskatchewan Writers’ Guild John V Hicks unpublished Long Manuscript Award. The second book, Through Flood and Fire was a Moonbeam Children’s Award Silver Medalist.


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