Lily Fairchild follows the life of a pioneer woman on the Canadian frontier over 77 years of her long life. She is witness to and a pawn of the great historical events of that period: the Underground Railroad, the clearing of the forest, the coming of the railroads, the discovery of oil, the two Riel Rebellions in the West and the flu pandemic of 1918. A story of love and survival.
Long-haul, multigenerational historical fiction such as this is often a victim of skewed perspective, as authors, deeply ensconced in often years of research, often overestimate how much detail their readers will want to endure. Gutteridge’s narrative is prodigiously researched (and includes a bibliography), but he never overloads his audience; instead, he seamlessly works the historical grounding into what is, first and foremost, an intensely personal story. The book’s large and varied cast is uniformly well drawn, but Lily towers over the rest; from her earliest scenes, she’s by far the most compelling figure in the narrative. Gutteridge believably and effectively captures her youthful exuberance, as well as her resilience, even in the face of a heartbreaking tragedy in the book’s final pages. He combines his character study with beautifully evocative prose; at one point, for instance, after sunset, “Lily was sure she could hear the River tuning up for its nightsong”; at another, a character’s skin is described as having “the pallor and touch of gray-white mushrooms too long in the rain.” Overall, the author does an excellent job of giving his narrative the feel of a life as it is lived. Readers of such books as Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove (1985) or Anna Waldo’s Sacajawea (1978) will see a similar kind of storytelling here; it’s a difficult feat to manage, but Gutteridge does so. A long but intensely involving tale of a tempestuous life.
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