Beyond the Wild River
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For fans of Kate Morton and Beatriz Williams, a highly atmospheric and suspenseful historical novel, set in the 1890s about a Scottish heiress who unexpectedly encounters her childhood friend in North America, five years after he disappeared from her family’s estate the night of a double murder.
Nineteen-year-old Evelyn Ballantyre has rarely strayed from her family’s estate in the Scottish Borderlands, save for the occasional trip to Edinburgh, where her father, a respected magistrate, conducts his business—and affairs of another kind. Evelyn has always done her duty as a daughter, hiding her boredom and resentment behind good manners—so when an innocent friendship with a servant is misinterpreted by her father as an illicit union, Evelyn is appalled.
Yet the consequence is a welcome one: she is to accompany her father on a trip to North America, where they’ll visit New York City, the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, and conclude with a fishing expedition on the Nipigon River in Canada. Now is her chance to escape her cloistered life, see the world, and reconnect with her father.
Once they’re on the Nipigon, however, Evelyn is shocked to discover that their guide is James Douglas, the former stable hand and her one-time friend who disappeared from the estate after the shootings of a poacher and a gamekeeper. Many had assumed that James had been responsible, but Evelyn never could believe it. Now, in the wilds of a new world, far from the constraints of polite society, the truth about that day, James, and her father will be revealed…to stunning consequences.
Atmospheric and suspenseful
An atmospheric narrative, rich personalities, and a secret that’s been festering for too long: perfect ingredients for a very enjoyable read.
The plot is set in three places. Chapters alternate between those, and sometimes two settings are combined in the same chapter, as memories are mixed into the narrative:
the Ballantyre’s estate in Scotland in 1898. Charles and McAllister, one of his keepers, are in constant conflict with poachers on their lands. An incident happens and old poacher Jacko got shot. James, the stable hand, suspected of the crime, flees
1893, at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Charles and his daughter Evelyn visit, in company of business associates and friends
After the exposition, they go to a fishing expedition on the Nipigon River in Northern Ontario. Charles and Evelyn are surprised to meet again James, now part of a group of anglers taking groups to fish. This will be the occasion to clarify what really happened on that dreadful day on the Ballantyre’s property and to settle accounts.
At first, it felt too convenient that James would be exactly where the Ballantyre are heading to, but then you get caught up in the story and it really doesn’t matter.
I enjoyed a lot Evelyn’s personality. She’s 19 in 1893. For five years, she’s lived with the memory of what she saw the night Jacko’s death, without understanding clearly what really took place.
She loves her father, but also feels he is hypocrite and hides her something fishy.
She’s also very critical of her rich milieu and its pretense and dreams of independence, represented in the personality and life style of James, who first introduced her to the secrets of nature.
Evelyn is eager for truth and justice. This shows particularly when she sees how Natives and women are treated and portrayed during the Columbian Exposition.
This has actually a very interesting view of the exposition, quite different form the one I had perceived through Death at the Fair.
As for Charles, he does appear at first both distant and possessive, and too self-centered.
Through his business dealings and interests, we get glimpses of the banking word, as well as mining and railway projects in Ontario at the time.
There are many elements in common to Maine’s both novels, even one of the main heroes having the same first name. I actually wondered all along if somehow James Cameron and James Douglas could be the same person.
There are some common areas as well, as the story is partly set in Scotland.
And a lot of beautiful descriptions of the landscape, especially the water. Maine has definitely a knack for painting these scenes, whether they are calm serene scenes or turbulent and life threatening waters of rapids. This is assuredly one of her main writing strengths. And when the narrative slows downs, you can just enjoy very word of these beautiful evocations.
She is just as gifted to create an ambiance, tension between people, like the tension in the atmosphere before a thunderstorm. The “court room” scene around a campfire in chapter 27 is very well done in that respect.
This is the type of book where at the same time you want to keep turning the pages to figure out the secret, but also want to leisurely savor every word of the beautiful descriptions.