Joseph Jones is a reference librarian in the Koerner Library at the
University of British Columbia.
Donna Milner published this first novel in her early 60s, after someone winnowed the manuscript from a slush pile. Raw psychic energy rampages through dense theme and complex structure.
The central narrator, Natalie Ward, looks back over most of a lifetime and many failed relationships to her coming of age in the late 1960s in a small town in British Columbia’s West Kootenays. Draft dodger “River” Jordan’s July 1966 arrival on the family dairy farm marks a time after which “nothing would ever be the same again.”
Mysterious stranger River catalyzes circumstances in the Ward family (mother and father, three sons, and one daughter) that are already set to precipitate. Specifics of the intricate plot’s far-fetched incidents would fast turn into spoilers. The impending 2003 death of Natalie’s mother brings on the uncovering of multiple secrets and the resolution of decades-old misunderstandings.
Striking extra-narrative qualities add resonance to the story and help to mitigate more apparent contrivances. A variety of odd doublings (events, settings, physical details) set off echoes. Imagery (wind, laundry, crows) subtly establishes strong linkages.
River’s portrayal involves a bundle of characteristics that effectively carry the story, but they do not cohere under scrutiny. At the outset, his disposition and manners overcome doubts. From that base he becomes more transgressive, starting with smoking marijuana. In retrospect, River acquires a spiritual aura and almost becomes a Christ figure.
The devotion of Natalie’s mother to the church initiates a strong Catholic theme in the novel. The adulated Kennedy family gets at least five separate mentions and an epigraph. Beneath the surface narrative, a barely controlled id seems to roil in lapsed-Catholic guilt.
Details of place and period need more fact-checking. Two examples: The Cascade Mountains lie far from the Kootenay region; and Natalie’s parents would not have had “opposing views” on draft dodgers coming to Canada as early as the summer of 1966.
The predominant mode of the novel is romance, with exotic setting, passionate relationships, and Gothic overtones. Much has gone into this compulsive first novel, some of it perhaps unspeakable.