What makes a character engaging? A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale

We meet Harry, the protagonist of Patrick Gale’s novel, as he endures horrific psychiatric ‘therapy’ in an asylum. Why then, for almost the first third of the book, do I find it so hard to care about Harry, or to accept his view of the world? The cause is not his gender – I identified with Atticus, cared about Thomas McNulty, wanted Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to survive – to mention a few of the characters I’ve read about in the last four weeks. (Harry Cane is not the first hero I have failed to sympathise with, I remember some years ago deciding that if Edward Waverley had been hung for treason in an early chapter then Sir Walter Scott and I could have been released sooner to read/write something else.)

So why is Harry Cane’s character not initially so engaging as Winona’s? Maybe because, at first, he is over-accepting of what happens to him, he follows others’ dictates and avoids confrontation. However, this changes, by the middle of the novel I was gripped by the story, and cared a great deal about what happened to Harry, and to his friends. This was true on re-reading the book, too. I was impatient for Harry to become independent, while telling myself that this early exposition helped explain Harry’s reactions to events and people he met in Canada.

Like Sebastian Barry’s A Thousand Moons, Patrick Gale’s book, A Place Called Winter, was inspired by stories about the author’s family. Patrick Gale did not need to go so far into the past as Sebastian Barry, his novel is set between 1910 and 1920; and his ancestor emigrated to Canada, not the United States. But the themes of forbidden homosexual love, racial bigotry and rape are common to both books.

Patrick Gale’s protagonist, Harry, is a shy, privileged young man, who marries Winnie, the quiet sister of his brother’s girlfriend. Then Harry is seduced by another man and falls in love. In order to escape the consequences of exposure as a homosexual he leaves his wife and emigrates to Canada, enticed by advertisements that promise homes and success to would-be colonists. He is transformed into a determined prairie homesteader, with the stamina to learn the skills and grow the muscles needed to survive as a farmer in the Canadian outback. And he has the luck to find love, and to build an unconventional family; further similarities to Days without End and A Thousand Moons. But we know something goes wrong, because the book’s initial scene has Harry enduring treatment in an asylum. The story unfolds against a convincing background of hostility to homosexuals, emigration from Europe to ‘the colonies’, persecution of Native Americans, WW1, Spanish flu, and (at-the-time) novel psychiatric treatments. Plus, another similarity to A Thousand Moons, there is one unrepentant villain.

While I’ve been writing this, I’ve realised that for Harry to arouse greater empathy in me, Patrick Gale would need to show Harry being more troubled, and having more sympathy, for victims he is not closely attached to. He is depicted as being very caring about wives and close families, but his reactions to the fate of (for example) the Cree village and Ursula are not dwelt on. That may be partly because the pace at the end of the book is very fast, there is little time for contemplation. Satisyingly, at the end of the book outstanding plot questions are answered. Satisfying also, because there is the possibility of happy lives for the characters who have survived this far.

Will I re-read it a third time?       Probably.

About lifelonglearner

Teacher in Southern England enthusiastic about exploring ways to learn and teach, and evangelistic about sharing them. Specialism is Physics, but that's just a useful starting point.
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