June Book Club - A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale

I am so sorry to be flaky about the other books then breeze in to lead a book, but I've not been finding the other books in the local charity shops or library, and this one I own on Kindle as I read it a few years ago.

The June Book Club book is A Place Called Winter (2015) by Patrick Gale. It's a fascinating story, the story of Harry Cane's life in both Edwardian England, and following his move to Canada, as a homesteader, part of the early settling of Sasketchewan, where Winter is a real place. Digging around for reviews, most have spoilers, like this one from Patrick Gale's website. There's a lot of geographical and historical content which I found engaging as I was interested in the wider picture surrounding Harry.

We read Notes from an Exhibition (2007) by the same author some years ago and I remember that one being enjoyed by everyone.

A Place Called Winter was shortlisted for several prizes and was the subject of Radio 4's Bookclub in March 2018 - warning lots of spoilers in that podcast - it's a discussion between the author and readers of the book.

Usual questions from the 20th of the month.

Comments

  • MiliMili Shipmate
    My library seems to be aligning with the book club choices, so I will join in again this month. I'm over a third of the way through the book and finding it interesting though tense, so am reading it in small sections.
  • It's not an easy read - unlike my usual more frivolous suggestions for August.
  • SarasaSarasa Shipmate
    I've downloaded it and will start this evening. The premise sounds interesting, so I'm looking forward to it.
  • DormouseDormouse Shipmate
    I loved this book, as I have loved all Patrick Gale's books. I hope others enjoy it as much as I did.
  • AndrasAndras Shipmate
    I think I've got the time for this one, so will download it right away.

    I know Saskatchewan very well - I spent twelve happy years there - and the winters can indeed be pretty bleak; but, oh, the blissful hot summer days and the long, lingering fall afternoons, with the maple trees all blazing scarlet!
  • finelinefineline Kerygmania Host
    I am enjoying this book. I'm about halfway through, up to page 190. It's at the library, and I'm going there every day and sitting for an hour to read about fifty pages. I could just borrow it and take it home, but it's a big heavy hardback, and it's kind of fun going to the library each day - I walk there through the woods.
  • AndrasAndras Shipmate
    I'm a little past half-way, and it's quite an entertaining read, though the frequent geographical and historical bloopers do rather get in the way. Did the author actually do any research at all? AT ALL???
  • Apparently - according to his website - but I don't know Saskatchewan to know any better.
  • AndrasAndras Shipmate
    Apparently - according to his website - but I don't know Saskatchewan to know any better.

    Looking at a simple historical map of Canada would have avoided a lot of the howlers. It just goes to show that you shouldn't write about things unless you know something about them or are seriously willing to find out.

    It's a shame because the story itself is a good one, and getting the history and geography right wouldn't have had any implications for the plot as far as I can see so far.
  • His stories about Cornwall are great, and accurate, which is more familiar to me. And I did refer to the maps in the book, but not beyond, when I read it.
  • SarasaSarasa Shipmate
    I've finished it, and enjoyed it. I like a story that is well told and moves along at a pace. I can't comment on bloopers, but I got the feel that he'd read a bit about Edwardian times as there seemed to be rather a few references dropped in to show that he had done his reading.
  • finelinefineline Kerygmania Host
    I’m curious now to know what the inaccuracies are. I’m nearly finished reading it - about 65 pages to go. I don’t have in-depth knowledge of Canadian history, but I lived in Canada for a few years in my 20s, and even though that is obviously much later than the setting of the novel, I found I could relate to the descriptions of the vastness, the sameness, of the prairies, and also a bit of the culture difference as a Brit, a different, tougher, more survival-based set of values, even now it’s very developed. The extremes of weather, the dangers they pose, and being warned about the foolishness of going out in a blizzard. And some of what is described about the difficulties of homesteading in the prairies seems similar to what various Canadian friends told me about their grandparents. And attitudes to the Aboriginal Canadians seemed accurate - still such attitudes when I was there. I never went to Moose Jaw but heard it mentioned a lot.
  • AndrasAndras Shipmate
    Let's just start with something that isn't even Canadian! He takes the train to Liverpool from King's Cross. Now, he could conceivably have travelled from Paddington to Birkenhead and taken the ferry over the Mersey, but the usual and fastest route was - and still is - from Euston, by what then would have been the London and North Western Railway and is now - God help us - Virgin Trains. Trains from Kings Cross would have taken him nowhere near Liverpool - that's the line to York and Edinburgh.

    So why put in the wrong detail when if he couldn't be bothered to check it he could have just left it out altogether?

    I have no trouble - oddly, perhaps - with writers who mess with geography or history for the sake of the plot, but putting in wrong information for no reason at all gets me more than a little cross.
  • finelinefineline Kerygmania Host
    Ah, okay, thanks. I guess I'm fortunate that bloopers like that don't make me cross or spoil my enjoyment of a book - they can be fun to spot, but I do read more for the characterisation and the story. I find all historical novels have me thinking 'But it wouldn't be quite like that' to some extent.
  • AndrasAndras Shipmate
    fineline wrote: »
    Ah, okay, thanks. I guess I'm fortunate that bloopers like that don't make me cross or spoil my enjoyment of a book - they can be fun to spot, but I do read more for the characterisation and the story. I find all historical novels have me thinking 'But it wouldn't be quite like that' to some extent.

    I'm afraid it's the editor in me coming out!
  • finelinefineline Kerygmania Host
    I finished reading it today. It's definitely a book I would read again. I want to read some more of Patrick Gale's novels now.
  • Tree BeeTree Bee Shipmate
    Patrick Gale was interviewed by Graham Norton on his Radio 2 programme on Saturday morning. I was driving unfamiliar roads at the time so didn’t hear it all but he did say he was embarrassed by the errors in this book. The one I recall him talking about was that the prairies at that time weren’t covered by crops. Might be worth finding online if you’re interested. I think it was about 12.30 so 2 1/2 hours into the programme.
  • AndrasAndras Shipmate
    Tree Bee wrote: »
    Patrick Gale was interviewed by Graham Norton on his Radio 2 programme on Saturday morning. I was driving unfamiliar roads at the time so didn’t hear it all but he did say he was embarrassed by the errors in this book. The one I recall him talking about was that the prairies at that time weren’t covered by crops. Might be worth finding online if you’re interested. I think it was about 12.30 so 2 1/2 hours into the programme.

    How interesting! Thanks for that.
  • SarasaSarasa Shipmate
    Thanks for flagging up that interview @Tree Bee . It's 1.30 into the programme and very interesting. I think I'll be reading some more of his books.
  • Tree BeeTree Bee Shipmate
    Ah, a bit earlier than I thought.
    I know we were heading towards Banbury but that doesn’t help with iPlayer.
    Sarasa wrote: »
    Thanks for flagging up that interview @Tree Bee . It's 1.30 into the programme and very interesting. I think I'll be reading some more of his books.

  • Sorry, late to ask questions on this book:

    How well do you think Patrick Gale captured the life Harry Cane had in England and then again in Canada?

    Does knowing that Harry Cane was Patrick Gale's great-grandfather, his mother's grandfather, and this book is building a story around the known biographical facts make any difference to your enjoyment?

    Do you think this was a psychological book (as so many of Patrick Gale's books are)?

    Patrick Gale is gay and many of his books have gay characters central to the theme. Is this important to you?

    Were there any characters or parts you found unbelievable? And if so, why?
  • SarasaSarasa Shipmate
    A few thoughts.
    I thought the scenes in London sounded rather like Gale had read a lot of books set around that time, Sinister Street etc. as it felt like a lot of books and films in that era, rather than what life would have actually been like. It seemed one step removed somehow. Canada, maybe because I haven't read anything or know anything about that era seemed slightly more of the time. Even so the first episode when Harry works for a year again felt a bit like something I've read elsewhere, Little House on the Prarie?
    Don't know if people have seen this about the background to the book. I read it after I'd read the book, and though I knew the book was based on family it didn't make a lot of difference to what I thought. I wonder what the real reason the 'real' Harry Cane left England was? I guess a homosexual affair is as good an idea as any.
    As for unbelievable characters, I did wonder if George would have turned so anti Harry as she is illustrated as doing in the book. In the beginning she comes across as quite a free thinker.
    More thoughts to follow.
  • finelinefineline Kerygmania Host
    I agree with Sarasa about the London scenes being similar to other books set around that time. I think, for me, both the London scenes and Canada homesteading parts seemed very broad - the narrator standing back and giving big overall descriptions of the lifestyle over many months/years, rather than everyday details that would give me a more intimate, real sense of the life.

    In contrast, the relationships, and Harry's inner life (emotions, thought processes, etc.) are described in detail. But it's thought processes about other people and himself - less about the life itself, to which he just seems to adopt a sort of mechanical, practical approach, both in London and in Canada. It's kind of like he's in a world of his own, where he observes what practicalities he needs to adopt to fit in/survive, but he doesn't engage emotionally with them. I was quite surprised by one sentence that said his resentment towards the hard work in Canada faded and he started to enjoy it, because there had been nothing previously to suggest any resentment or any feelings about the work at all. The work just seems background to his separate inner life and feelings about other people. And yes, I did think very much that this was a psychological novel, and it is why I enjoyed it.

    I did find it interesting to watch an interview where Patrick Gale said that Harry Cane was the name of his grandfather, who emigrated to Canada and not much was known of him, so he created the story. It didn't make any difference to my enjoyment of the novel, but it was interesting contextual information about the author.

    As for Patrick Gale being gay, and creating gay characters, as a fact it is not important to me as such, or rather I'm not quite sure what that means, the idea of it being important to me. It is a fact about his life. From this novel, though, I see (as I do also see in other novels where the author is gay and explores related themes) that it gives him an understanding of what it's like to be a marginalised person, someone different from society, who doesn't fit in, who won't be mainstream, etc. I am not gay myself, so the detail of gayness isn't so important - there can be other reasons why a person is marginalised - but the theme of marginalisation is important to me. What resonated with me is that Harry, as a marginalised person, is more in tune with other types of marginalised people in society - women, Cree people, and even the character who I took to be probably autistic, Frank. Harry feels an affinity with Frank, because he sees that where he himself is shy, Harry is socially awkward, so they both don't fit in for these different reasons. Harry's shyness and his stammer also make him a bit of an outsider in society, so even had he not been gay, I think he'd have still felt a bit on the outside.

    I liked the exploration of gender roles, challenging and subverting gender stereotypes, which isn't directly related to the gay theme, but I've observed gay writers often do explore these in a very interesting way, and it reminded me a bit of Jeanette Winterson's Passion (which is a very different sort of novel, but plays with gender roles, and challenges binary ideas of gender, in a similar sort of way).

    As for characters I found unbelievable, I found Harry both very believable and also unbelievable. He was too perfect. He didn't seem to have any sense of ego at all, no pettiness, no bitterness or resentment, no selfishness. I think the various things that happen to him over the years would realistically cause emotional baggage and issues and it would spill over into his life. Even when the climax happens and he then goes to have mental health treatment, even then it's just depicted as a single trauma that gets healed and he goes home. I suppose then, although I do see it as a psychological novel, I don't see it as fully realistic psychologically. But some aspects of Harry I found very believable, and I could relate to - especially the way he seems to observe everything and everyone, being in a bit of a world of his own, and finding confusing the various systems by which people judge each other, such as the class system.
  • MiliMili Shipmate


    How well do you think Patrick Gale captured the life Harry Cane had in England and then again in Canada?

    I don't know enough specific about the time period in both countries (especially Canada) to notice the glaring or small errors others picked up. I was surprised one of the sisters was allowed to go on the stage, considering how conservative her brothers were, even after the change in family fortunes. If Harry was forced to go to Canada, and Winifred was coerced into marrying Harry and not the man she loved due to class, I would think the younger sister would have been shipped off to stay with a distant relative for auditioning for the stage or after her relationship showed it was not going to lead to marriage.

    Does knowing that Harry Cane was Patrick Gale's great-grandfather, his mother's grandfather, and this book is building a story around the known biographical facts make any difference to your enjoyment?

    I enjoyed reading the link above about the background story. It left me wishing Gale had discovered the solution to the mystery though!

    Do you think this was a psychological book (as so many of Patrick Gale's books are)?

    There was certainly a lot of psychological tension and focus on Harry Cane's inner life. I have started reading next month's book 'East of Eden' and the characters must be less likeable or relatable because I don't stress out about their future as much as I did about Harry! There was a lot of foreshadowing about the disasters ahead of him.

    Patrick Gale is gay and many of his books have gay characters central to the theme. Is this important to you?

    It's not important to me, but it was good to read about the time period from the point of view of a man who was not openly gay in public, but is to the reader. One of my brothers is gay, and I'm extremely glad he lives in better times for gay people and can be open about his relationships, without pressure to marry a woman.

    Were there any characters or parts you found unbelievable? And if so, why?

    The characters were a little bit two dimensional. Most either mostly good or mostly bad. Were there progressive mental institutions for LGBTQ people at that time? I'm not sure if the psychologist who ran the farm like facility would exist at that time in real life.

    I also think real Harry might have been more of a rogue and a bit tougher to begin with to choose a farming life in Canada, rather than a more urban lifestyle.

  • MaramaMarama Shipmate
    1. How well do you think Patrick Gale captured the life Harry Cane had in England and then again in Canada?

    Apart from the mistake about the railway stations (Kings Cross being the station for Cambridge, York, Hogwarts and other points to the NE of London), I thought the general picture of Edwardian London was reasonably accurate, and I thought he got the atmosphere about right too. But I see what fineline and sarasa mean about it being a bit earnest and lacking in detail; the big picture is better that the minutiae.
    I don’t know enough Canadian history to comment on the detailed history of Saskatchewan and Canadian railway development as others have. Harry Cane’s broader experiences as a settler resonate with accounts from and about Australia, about which I know rather more; the hard physical labour, vagaries of the weather, male environment, encounters with Indigenous peoples (though with differences, of course).

    2. Does knowing that Harry Cane was Patrick Gale's great-grandfather, his mother's grandfather, and this book is building a story around the known biographical facts make any difference to your enjoyment?

    I did wonder whether the family connection was part of the reason why Harry seems a bit too perfect, as others have noted. Perhaps there’s a reluctance to give a great-grandfather failings. Not that it affected my enjoyment of the book.

    3. Do you think this was a psychological book (as so many of Patrick Gale's books are)?

    It’s mainly a book about relationships, rejection and marginalisation, and carries enough tension that we really care how these resolve. I’d agree that Gale develops a number of characters who are marginalised, or perhaps outsiders, in various ways in terms of gender, ethnicity and perhaps in other ways – Petra’s attitudes don’t fall into easily defined assumptions about gender, for example. Munck could be seen as a study of a psychopath – though I’m not sure that’s quite what it is. Any thoughts?

    4. Patrick Gale is gay and many of his books have gay characters central to the theme. Is this important to you?

    I’m not sure it’s exactly important to me (I’m not gay) but I found it interesting – and the utter rejection of Harry’s family in England is harrowing. This is the real effect of the illegality laws, graphically portrayed – and it’s important such stories are told. While no-one knows if this was the reason for the real Harry Cane’s departure for Canada, it’s certainly plausible – and at least as convincing as the failed investments explanation.

    5. Were there any characters or parts you found unbelievable? And if so, why?

    It’s probably true that Gale’s characters are mostly good or mostly bad – and lack some credibility because of it. Harry’s lack of bitterness is a bit hard to swallow, and his utter rejection by his family does seem a bit extreme. Yet I found that the story was compelling enough that I didn’t mind much.

    Overall, I really enjoyed A Place Called Winter; thanks for introducing Gale's work to me. I'll be looking for his other books.
  • AndrasAndras Shipmate
    How well do you think Patrick Gale captured the life Harry Cane had in England and then again in Canada?

    As others have said, the London / Herne Bay sections seem a bit formulaic, as if the author learned what he's writing about from books on the period - of which there are myriads - and wants us to know that he's read them. I suspect that upper-middle-class Edwardian life was either far more stultifying than he shows or rather more free-wheeling, depending on the family concerned. The Canadian sections really are all over the place, with egregious errors of history and geography that even a cursory glance at a historical map would have corrected.

    Does knowing that Harry Cane was Patrick Gale's great-grandfather, his mother's grandfather, and this book is building a story around the known biographical facts make any difference to your enjoyment?

    Doesn't every novelist build a story around known données? (Except for some sci-fi, I suppose!) So yes, interesting but I don't think it added much to my enjoyment of the book.

    Do you think this was a psychological book (as so many of Patrick Gale's books are)?

    Is there really any psychological development in Harry's character as the bookl progresses? Some, I suppose; but I'd have loved to have seen more.

    Patrick Gale is gay and many of his books have gay characters central to the theme. Is this important to you?

    Neither important nor unimportant.

    Were there any characters or parts you found unbelievable? And if so, why?

    The Canadian materials are all over the shop, which is a pity. The book really starts to fizz for me once Harry arrives at Winter (yes, there really is a place called Winter in Saskatchewan, named for and by a railway contractor, but it's now a ghost village and was never much of a place anyway). I wouldn't have minded if he'd left just about everything else out!

    One of the 'rules' which writing courses drum into their students is Show, don't tell. Like all such 'rules' it exists so that a writer can ignore it, but needs to know exactly why he's ignoring it. There's a bit too much Tell and not enough Show in some parts of the book - but I still enjoyed it.
  • SarasaSarasa Shipmate
    I rather like books that tell rather than show, and I quite enjoyed the way the story rattled along, specially in the Edwardian London bits. For some reason I kept on thinking of Kind Hearts and Coronets.
    What did people think of Troels? He seemed to move from being a fairly believable character, to the stuff of nightmares and back again.
  • Troels was why I asked that question. I too found him initially believable and then not.

    I enjoyed this book and found the storytelling fascinating. I too recognised the Edwardian London of so many other stories, including the books of the time. The Canadian episodes were interesting, some rang true, some I wasn't sure about (Jack London's books are of a similar era).

    I asked about psychology as that's what Patrick Gale says he is writing about, that and women's roles. And in the interview with Graham Norton he said he is now adapting the book for film and the women will have more of the spotlight. (He also said he drew his descriptions of the Canadian prairies from taking the Canadian train, and has since realised that at the time the book is set, those corn fields weren't there.)

    I asked about gay characters as I wondered if that was the explanation for Harry Cane's departure from England to Canada, and I could see why Patrick Gale would have written that into his novel.

    For those interested in Patrick Gale's books, my favourite is Notes from an Exhibition. I am glad that I'm introducing more of you to his writing.
  • AndrasAndras Shipmate
    I agree that Troels becomes something of a 'bad man' stereotype as the story goes on, quite believable at first, less so later.

    What about Gideon? No-one's mentioned him yet, but he does have an important part to play in the story.
  • Gideon Ormskirk is an odd character - one of the reviews on Patrick Gale's website (by Helen Dunmore for the Guardian) finds him
    reminiscent of the hypnotist Lasker Jones, who attempts to cure what he calls congenital homosexuality in EM Forster’s novel Maurice.
    I also recognised echoes of Pat Barker's depiction of William Rivers at Craiglockhart in the Regeneration trilogy, so I wonder if this does reflect the style of psychology at that time?
  • finelinefineline Kerygmania Host
    My understanding (perhaps wrong) of Bethel was that it was a progressive mental health institution, not specific to homosexuality - simply that homosexuality was of course considered a mental illness back then. And I thought Gideon was focused on healing the trauma Harry had experienced rather than curing his sexual orientation - though that was perhaps my misunderstanding. And of course he was interested for his own research, rather than from altruistic motives.

    I actually found Troels believable. Kind of larger than life, but then bullies of that type can be, and would especially be from the perspective of a quiet, gentle person like Harry. And also he would have more opportunity to be so in such an raw, basic environment, where civilisation is just beginning, where people are few and widely scattered, where it's very much a survival mentality. He is more casual and friendly when things are going his way, but as the novel progresses, Harry kind of gets one up on him in various ways (not as a deliberate rivalry thing on Harry's part, but from Troels' perspective), so I saw the escalation of Troels' behaviour as believable. Maybe I'm missing something though. It's one of those novels where I feel I'd really need to read it again to take everything in fully.
  • SarasaSarasa Shipmate
    I thought the Bethel episodes held up the story somewhat. There are references to Gideon being a Quaker, or at least the place having a Quaker ethos, and of course they had a long history of more enlightened approaches to mental health. I was reminded a bit of the asylum in Rose Tremain's Restoration. Gideon seems to be taking advantage of some of his patients sexually, or at least that is what is implied too. I found the whole going off with Ursula/Little Bear to find enlightenment didn't really work, and just seemed like a device so that Harry could gain some understanding into himself and maybe the character of Troels.
  • finelinefineline Kerygmania Host
    Yes, I found the going off with Ursula/Little Bear didn't really fit with the rest of the story, and seemed a bit odd and contrived. I saw it as a way to show that ancient traditions of the Cree culture are more holistically healing than any modern attempt at psychoanalysis.
  • AndrasAndras Shipmate
    fineline wrote: »
    Yes, I found the going off with Ursula/Little Bear didn't really fit with the rest of the story, and seemed a bit odd and contrived. I saw it as a way to show that ancient traditions of the Cree culture are more holistically healing than any modern attempt at psychoanalysis.

    Indeed, although Gideon goes out of his way to assert - presumably correctly - that Ursula/Little Bear isn't really a legitimate heir to that tradition. And then U/LB is, as the saga writers used to say, Out of this story, which is a shame; there's a need there for some sort of resolution, purely from the point of the book's structure.
  • finelinefineline Kerygmania Host
    I interpreted that as Gideon, as an outsider to the tradition (a white man, not Cree himself), trying to impose his own black-and-white view of what 'counts' in another culture, very different from his own culture. And that cultures are complex, and people are individual, etc. I got the impression from how Gideon was presented and how Ursula/Little Bear was presented that we were being encouraged to see Gideon as the powerful oppressor, despite his external friendliness and focus on equality - it is also observed by Harry several times that there are some inconsistencies in this supposed equality, and that the Cree person and the black person are really not treated as equals (in fact, none of the patients are really treated as equals with the staff, but the Cree person and the black person are treated as even less equal). The banishing of U/LB, with no resolution, no follow up, seemed to highlight this inequality very strongly and I felt it was effective to the theme of the novel.
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