The Island Walkers: A Novel
“Across a bend of Ontario’s Attawan River lies the Island, a small, working-class neighborhood of whitewashed houses and vine-freighted fences, black willows and decaying sheds. Here, for generations, the Walkers have lived among the other mill workers.”
The family’s troubles begin in the summer of 1965, when a union organizer comes to town and Alf Walker is forced to choose between loyalty to his friends at the mill and advancement up the company ranks. Alf’s worries are aggravated by his wife, Margaret, who has never reconciled her middle-class English upbringing with her blue-collar reality. And as the summer passes, Joe, their son, is also forced to reckon with his family’s standing when he falls headlong for a beautiful newcomer—a girl far beyond him, with greater experience and broader horizons.
As the threat of mill closures looms, the Walkers grapple with their personal crises, just as the rest of the town fights to protect its way of life amid the risks of unionization and the harsh demands of corporate power.
John Bemrose sets his debut novel, an epic family tale called The Island Walkers, in 1965 in fictional Attawan (based on Paris, Ontario), a small mill town where two rivers meet. The somnolence of the lovely town and the Walker family is about to be seriously disturbed. On a summer morning, 18-year-old Joe Walker is grudgingly helping his father Alf re-shingle their house when Malachi Doyle arrives. Doyle is an organizer trying to unionize the local textile mill where Alf works, and the changes that follow his appearance will soon overwhelm all: Alf, the all-too-human father; Margaret, the war-bride mother from England; Joe, struggling to enter the adult world; young diabetic Penny; and Jamie, who falls in with the wrong crowd.
Despite its shifting points of view, the writing is clear and sharp, like a figure standing on a roof silhouetted against the sky. Bemrose has a genuine talent for describing place: “as a breeze touched the trees across the river, showing the light undersides of their leaves like a woman’s slip.” But his primary skill, and the delight of the novel, lies in his ability to create credible characters. Basically a decent man doomed by circumstance, Alf stands at the heart of the novel’s tragic world of change and loss. Other characters are equally well depicted: Joe, in love for the first time; beautiful, intelligent Anna, the object of his affections; the crusty and experienced Doyle; the ambiguous Bob Prince, a mill executive whose motives are difficult to measure. Although the slew of affairs and dramatic events occasionally threatens to slip into a Peyton Place-like soap, Bemrose manages a rich depiction of small-town tragedy. —Mark Frutkin