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The Island Walkers

by John Bemrose

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small town & rural, family life, literary
list price: $22.00
also available: Paperback
category: Fiction
published: 2004
imprint: Emblem Editions
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  • , Man Booker Prize
  • , Scotiabank Giller Prize
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John Bemrose’s highly acclaimed national bestseller tells the story of a family who slips from fortune’s favour in a southwestern Ontario mill town during the mid-1960s. Like his father before him, Alf Walker is a fixer in the local textile mill. When a labour dispute forces him to choose between loyalty to his friends and his own advancement, Alf’s actions inadvertently set in motion a series of events that will reverberate far into the future. Meanwhile, Alf’s wife, Margaret, must reconcile her middle-class upbringing with her blue-collar reality, as her marriage is undermined by forces she cannot name. And after their eldest son, Joe, falls headlong for a girl he first glimpses on a bridge, the boy finds his world overturned by the passion and uncertainty of young love. At once intimate and epic in scope, The Island Walkers follows the Walker family to the very bottom of their night, only to confirm, in the end, life’s regenerative power.

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One Saturday in the summer of 1965, Joe and Alf Walker climbed onto the roof and spent the better part of the morning stripping the old shingles. By eleven they were busy nailing down the new ones. Joe, who had turned eighteen that July, worked on the slope overlooking the backyard. He sat shirtless, on his duff, and hammered sullenly between his legs, aware of the sun-baked expanse of tarpaper stretching up the slope behind him. From beyond the peak, his father’s hammer thundered without rest. It seemed crazy to try to keep up.

He shifted his weight, placed the next shingle, and looked across the yard with its picnic table and apple tree, its narrow lawn and rows of vegetables -- beyond the flood­dyke blooming cheerfully with his mother’s flowers, to the Atta, flowing through the shadow of Lookout Hill. Under its far bank -- a dim cave of limestone and darkly rippling water -- it looked cool and inviting: another world. He was labouring under protest, under a sense of injustice that drove him on in angry spurts then dragged him into a sloth so deep it was like a spell. Why were they doing this today? Today -- as he’d mentioned to his father last Wednesday, he was sure -- he and Smiley were planning to go hunting with Smiley’s new .22. His friend had gone on without him. A few minutes ago he’d heard a shot echo down the valley.

He dipped into the bag beside him and the sharp nails bit his fingers. For weeks the shingles had sat beside the house in their paper wrappings, under a paint­spotted tarp. A dozen times at least his mother had said, “Alf, I am getting so tired of that heap out there. You’d think we were living in the Ozarks.” His mother’s idea of the Ozarks came from television, but she used the phrase to convey a sense of social embarrassment, of appearances that were not up to the mark. He always thought it sounded funny in her English accent. His mother was a war bride. Hearing the words as a young boy, he had imagined her striding off to battle in skirts and helmet. The vision had made him slightly wary of her, as if she could lay claim to secret, irresistible powers. Yet there had been nothing but weary exasperation in her complaints about the roof, the mechanical recitation of an old war cry that no longer frightened anybody: an act for tourists. She had grown up in a finer house than this: she’d told him many times about the books, the grand piano, the holidays in Normandy. “Your father’s uniform fooled me completely” -- this was another of her stories -- “For all I knew he was a millionaire’s son.” It had become a family joke, told at the right time at parties: her coming down in the world was a mistake, based on her inability to read his father’s status by his accent or his clothes. It was not until after she’d arrived in Attawan in the spring of 1946 that she realized what she’d done. She hadn’t given up, though: getting the roof shingled was only one in an endless series of assaults on their rough edges -- on their house that, by her standards, was too small and, despite their relentless improvements, still too shabby, not to mention situated in the wrong part of town. Joe looked back to the river. Such thoughts were troubling, leading to shadows, sadness. Better to hunker down like his father and pretend he wasn’t affected.

Yet his father wasn’t impervious. His wife’s complaints might seem to sink into him without a trace, snow into dark water, but they could achieve a critical mass. This morning he had roused Joe early and announced that today they were shingling the roof. But why today, Joe wondered, the hottest so far of the whole summer? At breakfast, over a trembling forkful of fried egg, he dared to question the decision -- maybe they should wait till it was cooler, he said, thinking the whole time of Smiley’s gun, of the wafer of silver light at the end of the scope and even of the word “scope” itself, so pleasing and final, like a bullet smacking into mud. “It’s gonna rain,” his father said, and when Joe said, “It’s rained before,” meaning and you never bothered then, his father had said quietly, looking at him with those ice­blue eyes the colour of Lake Erie in spring, “No arguments.”

He thought there was something fanatical in his father that came from a place of silence and brooding Joe couldn’t read: something extreme and overbearing and violent that thank God was not there all the time but that could leap up like a blade you hadn’t been careful with and nip you. Now it was his arbitrariness that bothered him most. What gave him the right to decide? Why did he have to obey? Why didn’t he just throw down his hammer and leave the roof? He suspected that if he did, he would have to leave the house as well. He had absorbed some old notion that work was something you did for everybody, without complaint. He had worked for as long as he could remember, washing floors, washing the car, digging gardens, stacking cans at the A&P; this summer he was at Bannerman’s. He expected to work, but this morning some remnant of an ancient grievance had surfaced: the need for unquestioning obedience was an injustice and so was the loss of his day. He felt, irrationally, as if his entire future had been torn from him.

The hammering from the other side had stopped. A moment later he heard his father’s heavy, braced steps come down the slope behind him. The pack of shingles slammed into the roof­boards like a body.

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Contributor notes

John Bemrose’s first novel, The Island Walkers, was a national bestseller and a finalist for The Giller Prize. Bemrose is also well known as an arts journalist whose articles and profiles have appeared regularly in Maclean’s, where he is a contributing editor. In the past, he has written for CBC Radio’s Ideas, for the National Film Board, for the Globe and Mail, and for numerous other publications. He has also written a play, Mother Moon, produced by the National Arts Centre, and has published two poetry collections. Bemrose grew up in Paris, Ontario, the place that inspired the setting for The Island Walkers.

Bemrose has lived in Toronto since 1970. He is at work on his second novel.

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Editorial Review

“A beautiful, elegiac novel about place, family, and community. A profoundly moving book.”
–Guy Vanderhaeghe

“As Margaret Laurence staked out a world, Manawaka, in her novels and David Adams Richards has mined the Miramichi, Bemrose has created the vivid community of Attawan to tell an archetypal tale.”
–Halifax Chronicle-Herald

“An astonishing debut, a big and breathtaking family novel that is both understated and passionate.”

“[An] extraordinary debut novel.… Encompassing, bountiful, beautiful.…”
Globe and Mail

“A great reading experience, and Bemrose has now become a fiction writer to watch.”
–W.P. Kinsella, Books in Canada

“A clear-eyed eulogy for a town and way of life that is gone forever.”
–Sandra Martin, Globe and Mail

“We don’t have many novels that cross generations like this and give us both the interior of lives, a sense of social history, and an incredibly strong sense of place. The story is ambitious, and yet simply, beautifully told. The whole thing flows along like a river – a real page-turner with Dantean echoes and lyrical insights that are often breathtaking.”
–Marni Jackson

“A powerful debut novel.”
Library Journal

The Island Walkers is thick with natural beauty and social insight.… A profoundly sensitive portrayal of a family’s efforts to find its way through the tangled threads of desire and nobility, guilt and love.”
Christian Science Monitor

“As fine as any novel you will read this year.”
New York Sun

“Richly textured and multilayered.… Masterful.… A beautifully realized and emotionally resonant novel that stays with you long after you turn the last page.”
–Kitchener-Waterloo Record

“[An] accomplished first novel.…”
Publishers Weekly

“Rhythmical prose, a strong sense of physical place and a restrained, moving atmosphere of mourning for the past.”
National Post
“A finely wrought first novel.…”
Kirkus Reviews
“A compelling human story.… [This] beautifully crafted debut novel should earn Bemrose a place in the Canlit pantheon.…”
Edmonton Journal
“The book’s sense of place, its sense of the acceleration of time between generations, its sudden, surprising insights, give the sprawling story its impressive weight.… A riveting read.…”
London Free Press
“Bemrose has a talent for capturing the sad lyricism of ordinary lives.… Bemrose’s poetic touch finds beauty in obscure corners and grandeur in small victories.”
Baltimore Sun

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