There are two plots threads to this novel: one, featuring Margaret MacBayne, takes place in the mid 1800s, while the second, Alyson Thomson’s story, is set in the early 1990s. Both live on the same plot of land in Ontario—it is true wilderness when Margaret and her family come from Scotland to stake a claim on three connecting plots. In Alyson’s time, it has more of the trappings of civilization, but it still remote. Margaret’s father, a fisherman, determines that the family, which includes three elder sons, must move to Canada in order to seek a better life. Alyson has moved to the same location with her partner, looking for a place they can live and work outside of the stresses of their urban life.
Margaret has left a very short recounting of her life on a few empty pages at the end of a cookery book. Her segments of the story include brief passages from this biography, often haunting in their understatement. These excerpts from her account are filled out with evocative details of the family’s travails and her daily life. Alyson’s story connects with Margaret’s in ways that go beyond the land on which they live. They are both gardeners: Margaret becomes an expert on herbs and simples, Alyson begins by growing herbs for sale as a means to earning a livelihood. Both suffer grievous losses, and have to determine how to come through them as best they can.
The Holding is a wonder of a book. The two intertwining stories compliment each other beautifully. I was enthralled with Margaret’s and Alyson’s stories. The suspenseful situations had me reading at a gallop, while all the time I was trying to slow down, to savor the book. I recommend it very highly and will be rereading it myself very soon.