John Bemrose sets his debut novel, an epic family tale called The Island Walkers
, in 1965 in fictional Attawan (based on Paris, Ontario), a small mill town where two rivers meet. The somnolence of the lovely town and the Walker family is about to be seriously disturbed. On a summer morning, 18-year-old Joe Walker is grudgingly helping his father Alf re-shingle their house when Malachi Doyle arrives. Doyle is an organizer trying to unionize the local textile mill where Alf works, and the changes that follow his appearance will soon overwhelm all: Alf, the all-too-human father; Margaret, the war-bride mother from England; Joe, struggling to enter the adult world; young diabetic Penny; and Jamie, who falls in with the wrong crowd.
Despite its shifting points of view, the writing is clear and sharp, like a figure standing on a roof silhouetted against the sky. Bemrose has a genuine talent for describing place: "as a breeze touched the trees across the river, showing the light undersides of their leaves like a woman's slip." But his primary skill, and the delight of the novel, lies in his ability to create credible characters. Basically a decent man doomed by circumstance, Alf stands at the heart of the novel's tragic world of change and loss. Other characters are equally well depicted: Joe, in love for the first time; beautiful, intelligent Anna, the object of his affections; the crusty and experienced Doyle; the ambiguous Bob Prince, a mill executive whose motives are difficult to measure. Although the slew of affairs and dramatic events occasionally threatens to slip into a Peyton Place-like soap, Bemrose manages a rich depiction of small-town tragedy. --Mark Frutkin
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From Publishers Weekly
Set in a Canadian mill town in the mid-1960s, this solemn, accomplished first novel charts the fate of mill worker Alf Walker and his family as the town teeters on the brink of great upheaval. In 1965, Bannerman's mills, the largest employer in Attawan, Ontario, are taken over by Intertex, a textile conglomerate with an eye for cost cutting. After the first round of layoffs, a union organizer comes to Attawan, attracting suspicion from both management and workers, many of whom remember the disastrous results of an ill-planned strike in 1949. Alf, reluctant to jeopardize his standing as heir apparent to the foreman's job, is particularly skeptical of the drive to unionize. However, when Alf's desire to please the new management leads to unintended consequences, he begins to reconsider his position. Meanwhile, Alf's son Joe, a studious teenager who plans to go to college, falls for Anna Macrimmon, a worldly new classmate whose father is an accountant at Intertex. At the other end of the social spectrum, Joe's younger brother, Jamie, befriends Billy Boileau, son of a poor half-Indian mother, prompting Jamie's mother, Margaret, to label the Boileaus "not our kind of people," and going so far as to ban the child from her home. Bemrose's rather studied, deliberate prose and self-conscious lyricism slow the pace at first, but as the novel gains momentum, its exploration of class and vivid sense of place give it weight and depth.
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