In May, 1906, in the small Australian city of Albany, a telegram arrived informing the family of Reverend Thomas James, a respected leader of the Methodist Church, that he had drowned in a boating accident off Sydney.
He hadn’t. What really happened involved deceit, betrayal, scandal, mystery and hardship on two continents told here in the guise of historical fiction by one of the reverend’s descendants. The result is a fine portrait of times and places, the former stretching from the mid-19th century to the aftermath of the First World War, the latter being the early settlement of Australia and the wilds of Northern Canada in the years following the gold rushes before the turn of the 20th century.
But does it work as a novel? Here the book is less successful. What makes it entertaining and informative as an historical document over-complicates the fiction with details and embellishments that interrupt the story’s unfolding. The voyage of the four-year-old Thomas from England to his new home by clipper ship in 1860, for instance, may make for absorbing reading but detracts from the focus on the mystery of the adult and his frequently baffling behavior more than half a century later. Likewise, political squabbles among the clergy culminating in Thomas James’ excommunication are belabored beyond the hints they give to his true personality.
In fact, the major difficulty faced by the author is that, despite his considerable effort, his subject remains elusive, sometimes a schemer, sometimes a responsible husband and father, never allowing himself to be brought into sharp relief. By the end, we don’t “know” Thomas James, exactly, or just why he did the things he did. What we do know instead is the flavor of the places he lived and the characters of family members who (sometimes) loved him.
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