“At a quarter past three in the afternoon on August 17, 1898, Doctor Edward Byrne slipped on the ice of Arcturus glacier in the Canadian Rockies and slid into a crevasse”
Wharton’s take on the founding of the Jasper community in Alberta, Canada is set less than 100 years ago, almost in living or at least family memory. Those first settlers were random craggy arrivals, railroad men, geologists and soon followed by toffish academic tourists.
The town Jasper was only named after the fur trading post in 1913 and we speculate here from the French J’espere or the Canadian Despair. Before that it was called Fitzhugh after a vice president of the railway that opened up what is now a national park.
The moving glacier is the star, theme, setting, clock and stage on which our characters slip and slide into view and struggle for purchase.
Wharton’s writing is as blunt and verbless as if hewn from the same Rockie granite, lots of small boulder passages that roll into a scree. Opening sentences are like scene setting chapter heads: “Her name was Sara”. “When he woke, he was thirsty” and carry us on without distraction in a pioneering no nonsense fashion.
There is also a strange, now, sense of a time when people did not see or speak to each other for half a year or more, where the telegram was king, or was when the telegraph posts came.
This from the poet Hal : “In her swift passage through a new world she moves like a bullet. A small violence. Her writing a record of damage”.
Wharton’s writing captures an era and an idea using prose that dresses the narrative carefully in the clothes of its own time. Masterly done.
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