Having spent the past decade writing about Japan, Katherine Govier turns her gaze homeward in her latest novel – not to Toronto, where the author has lived for many years, but to her birthplace of Alberta, where, as she notes in her prefatory message to readers, the “Rocky Mountains shone on the Western Horizon, untamed and promising.” Growing up, Govier “skied and hiked on the slopes, fished in the lakes, and took ballet classes in Banff in what is now the Banff Centre.”
Govier’s love of her home province is evident not only in her effusive personal note, but throughout the novel, which, despite a hefty cast of characters and a story that jumps back and forth over a span of a hundred years, is never more engaging than when the author is describing the sights, sounds, and tactile realities of life in the mountains and the town of Gateway (a fictional locale presumably standing in for Canmore).
The book opens in 2011, with Walter and Iona Mariner summoning their three adult daughters – Lynn, Nancy, and Ann – to Gateway and informing them that Walter has purchased the old Three Sisters Bar and Hotel and put the property in their names. Though the various family members grew up in Gateway, all have moved on, so it’s a mystery to the girls why they’ve been saddled with a dilapidated establishment that has seen more recent business from biker gangs than locals or the growing numbers of well-to-do tourists in the area. Still, the sisters are unable to refuse Walter’s gift, and the family sets out to restore the building and bring the old girl back to life.
Having established her contemporary narrative thread, Govier then delves into the book’s historical storyline, which dominates not only in page count but also in complexity and interest. While the setting remains the same, the timeline moves back to 1911, when trail-guide and mountain man Herbie Wishart is hired as an outfitter for revered American archaeologist Charles Hodgson, his adult children, Humphrey and Isabel, and his manservant, Maxwell. Herbie is tasked with leading the party on an expedition to collect rare fossils Hodgson discovered in the mountains the summer before. Despite his assurances to anyone who’ll listen that he has no interest in being burdened with a wife, Herbie is taken with Isabel, who “appeared to him in a pop, the way a flame jumped up in his pipe bowl when he sucked on the stem.” The attraction is mutual, and the connection between the two proves to be the defining force of Govier’s narrative.
Herbie and Isabel’s love is doomed from the start, and it comes as no surprise when the Hodgson expedition, having been left by Herbie at their camp in the mountains to collect samples, never appears at the scheduled rendezvous point for the return trip to Gateway. Their fates are eventually revealed to the reader (in a “case closed” – if not “solved” – manner), but for most of the other characters in the book, Hodgson, Isabel, and Maxwell simply vanish. Humphrey reappears decades later – a convenient plot contrivance that appears designed to add more kindling to the mystery, but little else.
If Govier had concentrated on this historical narrative and taken the time to flesh out her characters a bit more, The Three Sisters would be a thoroughly satisfying read. Unfortunately, an abundance of secondary characters and subplots weighs the book down, and give the impression that the author had mined so much material from her extensive research that she felt it necessary to fit it all in. While the modern-day Mariner family holds some appeal (and some narrative relevance, given their relationship to the historical characters), the early 20th-century story is strong enough to stand on its own without the leap forward in time and genealogy.
An illegitimate child appearing in adulthood, an entire secondary plot about the development of Parks Canada and the first national parks (complete with a very forward-thinking young woman at its centre and the introduction of real historical figure Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance) all serves as a distraction from the heart of the book and Govier’s intent to showcase her love of the terrain that formed the bedrock of her childhood. Govier continues to write beautifully, and her attention to the past is admirable, but this book is ultimately undone by too much of a good thing.