Blog

Sarah Maine on the importance of landscape

Sarah Maine’s beautiful new novel Beyond the Wild River sees the story move from the Scottish Borders to the Nipigon river in Canada. Read on to discover  the draw of rugged landscapes and cascading waterfalls in the book.

 

Landscapes are inspirational. It’s only when I have a place in mind that the characters and the plot come into focus, and then the  landscapes keep nudging me along. Beyond the Wild River starts in the Scottish Borders, amongst those lovely soft rolling hills  where rivers flow, orderly and serene. My parents lived just north of the border for a while so I spent time exploring the region, and was married in their little village church. The story open there in the late 19th century and the two main protagonists, Evelyn Ballantyre and James Douglas, grew up seeing very different sides of Borders life. Evelyn was born into the  land-owning classes who had fine houses,  manicured gardens, and a strong sense of entitlement. James, by contrast, was brought up by Jacko, the poacher, who lived in the shadows and had an equally strong sense of grievance.  The area lends itself to such contrasts – the River Tweed as it passes through the Ballantyres’ estate is  shallow and picturesque, tripping over pebbles in dappled sunshine, a place alive with birdsong where cows come down to drink, but it is a place where, in the half-light of evening, the poachers come with their nets and harpoons.

And then one evening Jacko is shot dead on the riverbank, and a dark undercurrent begins to flow.

Five years later Evelyn and her father travel to the Chicago World Fair, en route to Canada, and Evelyn reflects on the difference between the real and the illusory as she gazes at the classical buildings of The White City. ‘Straw and plaster, my dear, then white paint and gilding,’ she is told. ‘They won’t last the winter.’ And this is 1893, the year of The Panic, when those who parade  themselves on sleek steam yachts are going spectacularly bankrupt.

I spent part of my childhood in Canada, in the area north of Lake Superior, where great pine forests stretch as far as the eye can see. I still remember that sense of freedom as my brother and I took to the water in canoes, fishing rods beside us, pulled on by our new friends. James Douglas fled to that same area, incensed by his treatment by Charles Ballantyre,  determined to start anew in a place where the old class rules did not apply. He gets work on the Nipigon river, acting as guide for the wealthy sports anglers who once came there to fish, believing he has put the bitterness behind him. But when Ballantyre, his daughter and  a party of guests arrive, the shock becomes a resolve to settle what happened five years ago on the banks of the Tweed.

The Nipigon river falls over a series of rapids from Lake Nipigon to empty into Lake Superior and, as the party moves upriver, the realities of life replace the illusions. It is a majestic landscape, the dark brooding forest, the high cliffs and the crystal clear waters. The Nipigon is not an orderly Borders stream, it is a violent dangerous current which cascades over boulders, ripping aside pretence and artifice to reach the truth.  The contrast between these two landscapes could hardly be greater, and so the story grew there, and the characters developed, affected and changed by their altered surroundings.  And my own strong bond with both places meant setting the story between them was irresistible!

Beyond the Wild River is published on the 20th April. Order now.