Settlement tells the story of Anne Jameson, an English writer who comes to Toronto in 1836 to reunite with her estranged husband, the Attorney General. He wants his wife to lend him respectability, and she wants material for her latest book as well as money to support her family. A love match it is not. But Anne finds a kindred spirit in Sam Jarvis. Depending on whom you ask, Sam is a murderer or a charmer; a murderer for having bested a foe in a duel and a charmer for dressing well, living well (beyond his means, in fact) and being appealing to women.
The book alternates between Anne’s and Sam’s perspectives. Sam is attracted to Anne, but married. Anne is unhappily married and friends with Sam’s wife. Lest this sound too much like a soap opera, Birch paints a fascinating picture of Toronto and other parts of Canada in the early 19th century. As Anne arrives in winter, I felt the cold as much as she did, but she’s an adventurous sort and goes sleigh riding and scandalizes the other housewives by expressing opinions at dinner parties. Sam is the Governor’s liaison to the Indians, and Birch provides a history lesson, but not in a preachy way, of Indian-Canadian relations. An Indian acquaintance of Sam’s falls into alcoholism after being swindled by a local shopkeeper. Anne is all for boycotting the shop and while Sam agrees with her in principle, he is reluctant to rock the boat and all too aware of his own debts to the man. Each disappoints the other while struggling with their attraction. The cold eventually thaws both literally and metaphorically, and Sam and Anne achieve détente.
Birch not only brings 19th-century Canada to life (were it possible to time travel, I would go there) but its characters as well. Gossipy women, pompous politicians, and a flawed hero and heroine are vividly described. Settlement is a first novel; I await the second.