Thomas Wharton - Icefields

Finally, finally I've read Thomas Wharton's Icefields, a novel recommended to me by friends and colleagues and, most importantly, those rare few who fall into both categories. I had some trepidation about this, after my response to Sid Marty's well-reviewed and similarly recommended Black Grizzly of Whiskey Creek, but in the end I've come away feeling quite positively about it all.

Well, mostly. On the one hand, Icefields is a lyrical, character-rich vignette from the early days of Jasper's development and settling. There are several ways in which the novel would seem deserving of its accolades and awards, and the choice of Jack Hodgins to write the lengthy back-cover blurb which stands in for a summary of the novel strikes me as highly appropriate: in Icefields, Wharton has done for Jasper some version of what Hodgins did for northern Vancouver Island in The Resurrection of Joseph Bourne. For casual fans of West Coast literature, a deserved comparison to Hodgins is high praise indeed.

Mind you, even though Hodgins won the Governor-General's Award for The Resurrection of Joseph Bourne, and he was only shortlisted for it with The Invention of the World and Spit Delaney's Island, the two shortlisted works have had more to do with Hodgins' long-standing reputation as the preeminent novelist of place from/for this particular place. I'm not sure how to put this, but let me try anyway: Wharton's done a wonderful job at a relatively narrow task, but many tasks remain to be done before I'll be entirely convinced of his role vis-a-vis writing Jasper as place.

The relationships between characters are alternately striking and haunting, depending on who you're spending time with, and the icefields themselves are impressively evoked. I came away feeling like I knew more about how Jasper evolved, and some of his writing was memorably effective, as in the beautifully crafted section detailing the return of young Jim Trask to Jasper after the Great War. And it's worth saying that I'm comfortable teaching this novel in January, in my planned team-teaching course that's gone solo, even though my partner isn't going to be there to teach it.

It's just that it's a small, intimate book. That's okay, in fact it's more than okay, but it's not really how the book was sold to me. If that's how I'd heard of it, I'd have been more than happy with Icefields. If you're looking for an intimate historical novel, rather than a sweeping one, set in the Rockies, then this just might be the book for you. After all, it's been the book of choice for an awful lot of people since it came out, and some of them I even trust.


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