Johns’ prizewinning first novel is a literary story of how one coincidence can have repercussions in the lives of whole families and generations to come. Walt Dunmore and Alister Clark are the only survivors when their B-24 bomber goes down on the Labrador coast during World War II. Injured, freezing, with no way to call for help, the two must find a way to survive above the Arctic Circle, fighting both the subzero temperatures and the unlikely possibility that someone will stumble upon them in the snow.
On the home front, at a small farm outside Windsor, Ontario, Walt’s new bride, Dottie, struggles with the fears of those left behind: loneliness, worry and the nagging thought that, in their haste, she may have married the wrong man. After she learns about the crash, she seeks out and befriends Alister’s young wife, Adele, and her newborn daughter, Caroline. As luck would have it, only one man returns from Labrador, but by that time, the women’s lives are tightly intertwined.
Years later, both families relocate to Chicago. Caroline Clark has grown up caring for her mother and now can’t find her own life. Sam and Charlie Dunmore, now citizens, must choose between returning to the family home in Canada or being drafted for Vietnam. The novel follows the families into old age and the third generation, where the questions of loss and loyalty replay themselves in the present day.
Johns’ novel is both as epic as the cultural turmoil of the last half of the 20th century and as intimate as a family history. When it was her turn, Caroline proved herself to be a very passive narrator, which was entirely in keeping with her character but a bit difficult for the reader. Otherwise, I recommend Icebergs to any fan of literary historical fiction.