Margaret Sweatman's latest novel, When Alice Lay Down With Peter (Knopf Canada, 457 pages, $34.95 cloth, ISBN: 0676973159), begins at the end of the narrator's life¨fitting for this cyclical book. The Prologue opens with Blondie, the daughter of Alice and Peter, in her garden in late May, describing the land, her garden, and her 109-year-old body as she lays herself on the warm, fragrant grass, and dies.
"I'm dipping my pen into the Red River, always at the same spot." This spot is St. Norbert, Manitoba, where in 1869, Peter paid a Cree man $1.00 per acre for a plot of land on the banks of 'The Red.' This land, referred to by the posthumous narrator, Blondie, as "our property," (the phrase always surrounded by quotes just as the land would always be surrounded by fences) grounds the McCormack family and this story for the next 110 years. The novel follows this matriarchal family across oceans, through wars, poverty, floods and drought, always ending up at the same place on the banks of the Red River.
When Alice and Peter lie together in the middle of the scorching heat and a downpour punctuated by extravagant strikes of lightning, Blondie is conceived¨warm, wet and unintended. A few months later, the couple meets Louis Riel and after sharing a brief moment of contempt for the latest settlers of the West, Peter and the still-pregnant Alice, join Riel's army.
This would not be the first time a female McCormack would cut her hair, put on a pair of pants and join an army. It would, in fact, happen to every McCormack woman. Some would return from their battles and others would not, but they would always be ready for a good rebellion.
Sweatman's writing graciously flows from generation to generation carrying with it the phrases and habits of ancestors. There are passages tinged with magic, as ghosts appear and lightning strikes repeatedly. Sweatman allows the landscape to come alive and lends a romantic quality to the history of Canada. It is, however, the cyclical nature of the novel that is so captivating. Patterns become apparent, pushing their way up through the text like a topographic map. When Alice first met Peter, only one kiss was needed to take her across an ocean to find him again; it took one kiss between Blondie and Eli to bring the former out of a fifteen year self-imposed exile, and Blondie's child Helen, would follow the same path: "It was one kiss. On such things the world hinges."
There are points, however, near the end of the novel where characters and events come and go too quickly. Most deserving of more attention was the death of Eli. He played a major role in Blondie's life and represented a pivotal point between the old ways of the buffalo hunter and the contemporary world. Strangely, his death was only given seven words¨"That is the summer Eli passes on."
The ending is unfortunately rushed, as though our modern world has caught-up with the history of this family, allowing no time for sentimentality and storytelling. But in a way, When Alice Lay Down With Peter appears to need no ending, and instead leaves the reader feeling that this story is continuing outside the confines of the novel. Somewhere on the banks of the Red River someone else is buying a piece of land, lightning is waiting to strike, and a ghost is about to return to see who is living in her grotto. The land will be washed away, will reconstitute itself, and another little girl will be born with her eyes wide open. ˛