A Reckoning of Angels
The Canadian novel is a closed book to most Yankees, once one gets past Margaret Atwood, Mordecai Richler, Robertson Davies, or Farley Mowat. This makes a historical novel set mainly in Canada — Western Canada in the late 19th and early 20th century — a matter both of some interested curiosity, and of much ignorance. Whitley brings a young Ukrainian, Jan Dalmynyshyn, to Manitoba from Ukraine by way of the horrible crude-oil “pits” of Boryslav (low pay, serious risks) to the Pennsylvania coalfields (better pay, deadlier risks). His other main character, Byron Bloode, is a privileged Anglo-Canadian youth, a weak and complicated type, an unlucky aesthete and reluctant businessman. Dalmynyshyn stakes and farms a land-claim but is forced to flee to the Klondyke gold-rush country; Bloode has to go off to the Boer War, shows the white feather, and barely escapes a firing squad on a charge of “treasonous conversation.” The paths of the two men cross in prewar and wartime Manitoba, and the novel’s culmination comes in the ferocious labor unrest of 1919. This is, in fact, a saga, or at least a semi-saga, and is not more upbeat about the human condition than the original Norse sagas typically are.
The style is stately verging on ponderous, with occasional flashes of unforced poetry and a good psychological “edge.” The characters are fully fleshed out, and Whitley is not sentimental, though the self-conscious philosophizing of Jan the Ukrainian sometimes comes close to caricature, and the bloodless young Bloode is no real foil to the Ukrainian peasant and artisan. The author builds his historical texture by strict if not obsessive attention to detail, and he rarely overloads his text (providing instant translation of Ukrainian and Polish words and phrases is awkward, but probably necessary). The over-theme of the “reckoning of angels” is so faint as to be almost invisible, but Whitley presents certain solid strengths as a storyteller, and as a careful (if not overly imaginative) one as well. In the end, the book has less of a Canadian (or North American) feel than a European — even an Eastern European — flavor, which may or may not be the author’s purpose. And though the book’s intent or target is sometimes a puzzle, and open and easy transitions are followed by dense and impacted text — Whitley, a legal official by trade, is no master of fiction yet — this is a frequently impressive first novel, and one that opens up, usually successfully, an original vista to an unfamiliar but eventually resonant and thoroughly evoked past.