August Into Winter by Saskatchewan writer Guy Vanderhaeghe is an enormous gift to fiction lovers: a wonderfully paced, character-driven novel of ideas, an authentic depiction of individuals and a world in crisis. The year is 1939, war is on the horizon, and in the small town of Connaught, a series of pranks committed by a disturbed young man named Ernie Sickert escalates into the murder of a local police officer. Sickert flees Connaught with his twelve-year-old “girlfriend” Loretta Pipe, and First World War veterans Jack and Oliver Dill are recruited to pursue them. Jack, a religious mystic traumatized by war, has been writing a book on the “City of God,” while Oliver is a world-weary widower, looking for a reason to go on living. The manhunt brings them to Clay Top School and schoolteacher Vidalia Taggart. Still mourning the loss of her lover, Dov Schechter, an ardent Communist killed in the Spanish Civil War, Vidalia is unwittingly brought into the chaos Sickert creates, and she and Oliver embark on a tentative journey of grief, love, idealism, and redemption.
Despite being 472 pages, the novel moves briskly, particularly in the first half when the Dill brothers are thrust back into their wartime roles, playing cat and mouse with Ernie. Those who are familiar with Vanderhaeghe’s Frontier Trilogy (The Englishman’s Boy, The Last Crossing, and A Good Man) will find this a more accessible read: a crime thriller wrapped up in small town life and the Hemingway-esque terrain of Dov’s Spanish Civil War journals. Vanderhaeghe’s language is restrained in these journals, though there are beautiful, descriptive flourishes elsewhere: “lion-tawny, bristling grass; pencil-thin red willow glowing like banked coals; clusters of withered chokecherries smoking with purple-black fire” (395).
Most of the story’s dynamism is supplied by Ernie, a chameleon-like character whose dialogue shifts from the “jive talk” of Cab Calloway to a formal British tone, to “cutie” and “Snookums” when referring to Loretta. On one hand, Ernie is a psychopathic force of nature, yet he is also vulnerable, at times darkly humourous, an outsider that would not be out of place in Flannery O’Connor’s fiction. Jack Dill is also an outsider, a ruthless soldier and eccentric civilian, rendered with great sympathy. Vanderhaeghe brings these two psychologically-damaged characters together in a thrilling, thematically resonant finale.
Oliver Dill and Vidalia Taggart are exquisitely drawn archetypes, ordinary individuals who carry “the past into the future on [their] back” (362) and struggle with internal and external crises. While this is a novel that asks big questions–how do individuals respond to a threat like fascism, or for that matter, someone like Ernie Sickert?–they are always filtered through the lived experiences of its characters. Oliver and Vidalia have suffered devastating losses, but it is by “putting one foot in front of the other” (458) that they are able to survive, and ultimately, find happiness “in a world of starvation, fire, disease, loneliness, and the catastrophes of war” (472).
Vanderhaeghe is an acclaimed novelist, but even more acclaimed for personally-informed short stories that explore thwarted desires, social expectations, and masculinity in rural settings. Here, he spins a tale in which masculine performance, rural versus urban living, and the omnipresent prairie weather is front and centre. Sparked by a story that his father told him about the murder of a police officer in his hometown of Esterhazy, this is Vanderhaeghe’s most personal novel since 1989’s Homesick. And it is fitting that a story of war and the Depression is dedicated to his parents, who lived through those tumultuous times.
There are many reasons to read August Into Winter–for its captivating antagonist, its strong female protagonist, the beauty of the language, the rumination on war–but simply put, it is storytelling at its finest. August Into Winter is an epic in miniature that reminds us why we go on living and loving in a world veering from one crisis to the next.
August Into Winter
by Guy Vanderhaeghe
McClelland & Stewart, 2021, 480 p.p., $34.95
Brandon Fick grew up in Lanigan, Saskatchewan. He primarily writes fiction and has been published in Polar Expressions, in medias res, and The Society. He received a Writing Diploma from St. Peter’s College and a B.A. Honours in English from the University of Saskatchewan. Brandon is currently in the MFA in Writing program at the U of S, working on a short story collection exploring masculinity and small town life.