Review: Exquisite attention to historical detail

Posted on Jun 30, 2015 | 0 comments

I remember my first encounters with history. Grade Five it would have been and we called it Social Studies. Miss Kolton taught the class. I recall names, places, facts: Alexander the Great, Marco Polo, the Ghengis Khan; Persia, Venice, Mongolia. To tenderize their meat, the armies of the Great Khan would place slices between horse and saddle.

Now, a few decades later, it is a different kind of history that holds my attention. I prefer to leave the big players aside to focus on the minutae, how people lived, what they ate and drank, how they got from one place to another, how they organized their societies, courted, married, raised children. I am a sucker for those BBC shows, the ten-parters that explore every aspect of a Tudor privy.

The same kind of satisfaction comes from reading Morgan Wade’s excellent new novel, Bottle and Glass. Beautifully written, meticulously researched, the novel tells the story of a pair of English cousins, Merit and Jeremy, who have the ill-luck to end up in the garrison town of Kingston, Ontario during the tumultuous days of the War of 1812.  Like most immigrants (even the willing ones), they struggle: with uncivilized sailors and soldiers, unscrupulous land owners, Americans, and a large assortment of drunks.

Indeed, as the title suggests, booze plays a big role in the book. In 1814, Kingston was a town of taverns and Wade pays tribute to this legacy by bringing the reader inside a number of them. These are a far cry from your local Kelsey’s, reeking of sweat and tobacco, serving lager and whiskey (in the same tankard), and questionable food.

All of which provides a fascinatingly vivid backdrop to the story of Merit and Jeremy. Their dynamic is the stuff of buddy movies. The goal for both is to get back to their poor Mother, who awaits them on the English moors. But their approaches are different. Merit is pragmatic, more interested in gambling than rocking any boats. His cousin is romantic and driven by a higher kind of morality, even when it may interfere with their ability to escape Canada. When these conflicting values and interests clash, as when Jeremy takes an interest in the young wife of a much older local big shot, the story gets cooking.

No small part of the pleasure of Bottle and Glass comes from Wade’s exquisite attention to historical detail. Every sentence, it seems, contains some small tile of a mosaic that portrays life in this part of Canada in a way that no Heritage Moment could ever hope to achieve.  This extends to the language of the characters. More than once, I was reminded of the kind of historic atmosphere created by Margaret Atwood in Alias Grace (also set in Kingston, albeit a generation later).

Bottle and Glass deserves a place in the pantheon of Canadian historic fiction, a sub-genre that has largely ignored that period of our colonization. No longer, thanks to Morgan Wade.


Bruce Geddes

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