When you’re out in the bush, you can bury your troubles – and, sometimes, a body. Joe Adler is a third-generation logging foreman in Black River, a northern Ontario town where everyone knows your business and your fate is often decided before you’ve even had a chance to think about it. He’s trying to be a good husband and a good father to his young daughter, but his wife has aspirations beyond the claustrophobic confines of Black River. She wants to be a writer and goes to Toronto to pursue her dream. Joe’s estranged from his brother, who has gone to Alberta to seek fortune in the oil fields.
After one of his best employees dies on the job out in the bush, Joe, who has a weakness for drink like his father and grandfather before him, turns to the whiskey bottle for solace. Things do not go well when a co-worker shoots his mouth off at the bar. The new, by-the-book cop in town wonders if the employee’s death was really an accident. Meanwhile, Joe and the dead man’s widow drift inexorably together.
Mayr captures well the beautiful solitude and melancholy of the bush that draws Joe: the hundreds of thousands of acres of forested Crown land that make up most of northern Ontario that isn’t lakes, the hunting, the ice fishing. The secondary characters like Joe’s boss and his chain-smoking mother are not just cardboard cutouts but appear well drawn and entrancing. And the spirits of Joe’s deceased father and grandfather have an equally important effect on the story.
Although man versus nature is a prominent theme in literature – and CanLit most particularly – this theme, in Mayr’s novel, is more of a means to an end. It is Joe’s inner journey to overcome his own narrow view of the world, for the sake of himself, his daughter, his new love interest, and even his failing marriage, that drives the novel. The milieu is unswervingly authentic and will be readily familiar to anyone who’s ever spent time north of Sudbury. The ubiquity of lakes, forests, hunting rifles, heavy equipment, and alcohol combines into an ever-present sense of foreboding. Violence or catastrophe are always in the air, and thin ice – like the people in Black River – is always ready to crack.