Saskatoon Star Phoenix Review - Swedes' Ferry
For love or money
Reviewed by: Bill Robertson
Cowboy on run, and search for a soulmate
By Bill Robertson, The Starphoenix
I am a slow reader. Always have been. When I hear that a book can't be put down, I know I'll be an exception to that claim. Not since I was 11 and read a Hardy Boys mystery in one sitting have I worried about being kept awake at night by a book. But I actually had to dole out Swedes' Ferry in equal instalments over five nights so that I could get my adventure fix and still get to sleep at night. It's a great deal of fun.
Dundurn writer Allan Safarik, responding to his late wife Dolores's request for a story, concocted this tale of a rogue Mountie and the perfect bank heist gone wrong.
The time is 1894 and a single man rides into Bismarck, N.D., to stick up the First National Bank. He gets the entire Great Northern Railway payroll - $44,000 - and shoots the manager through the head. Then, because he's an amazing rider, he eludes everyone on his tail, getting away with only a flesh wound to his horse from a kid with an old muzzle-loader. All of these details matter, by the way.
Inside the Canadian border he returns to an old horse-trader's place to unload his exhausted mount and get another. Bud Quigley doesn't ask questions of this mysterious man, especially since the man gives him four grand to hide and keep if he doesn't return. I'm giving nothing away to tell you the lone rider is a member of the North West Mounted Police stationed now in Regina, but who scoped out the whole operation while stationed near the border.
The Mountie is driven to such a desperate act by the painful knowledge that his single mother is working herself to death and his brothers and sisters are scattering to bad influences. He's been sending home everything he makes honestly, but it's not enough. The bank job would have done the trick, but a dog spooked his horse, and the gun, a mere threat, went off and shot the manager. Now he's a murderer and the Great Northern has set the Pinkerton Detective agency on the Mountie's trail. These are not pleasant men, and their methods are barbaric.
Safarik gives us a tale straight out of '50s cowboy movies, with solid narrative drive, a very male landscape full of the bad, the good, the morally compromised, and women who are either sainted mothers or whores. And there's real attention to the detail of horses and guns. Safarik also isn't bothered by absolute historical accuracy or words such as "lifestyle" creeping into such a hardscrabble world. This is totally captivating fun with some great narrative switchbacks along for the ride. Hang on.
Calgary writer Rosemary Nixon is well-known to Saskatchewan audiences, especially now that she's writer in residence at the Saskatoon Public Library. Before that she put in a stint at the Sage Hill Writing School at Lumsden. Now she's back with her fourth book, a collection of linked short stories entitled Are You Ready to Be Lucky?
You'll notice it's not "get lucky," which we all understand to mean have sex. Well, there's plenty of that going on, or being attempted, anyway, but Nixon is aiming at people "being lucky" in love. Can they find companionship, someone to be with, especially later in life once the kids have been raised and the ravages of divorce have taken their toll? Is there anyone out there who wants to be in a relationship and isn't nuts?
In the opening and title story we meet Roslyn, who's been married for 23 years and now her husband's gone. She wants to live; she's ready to be lucky, and we watch her get swept off her feet by Duncan, a smooth-talking Brit. You want to step into the story and say, give your head a shake, Ros, but that's not how stories, or life, work. Sensible people do not-sensible things and find themselves with someone who's not just nuts, but nasty.
Duncan turns up again in other stories, married to a parade of women, until he may have met his match. And then there's Floyd, home handyman and reasonably nice guy, who can't seem to stay married. He rolls in and out of Roslyn's life as she gets back on her feet after her Spanish fiasco.
Nixon's got a fast-paced style in which people talk and think like a string of firecrackers, in and out of Calgary, an English ex-pat community in Spain that seems to double as hell, and places here and there in England. Hope, as they often say, springs eternal for those who want to be lucky in love, and Nixon's committed their lives to paper so we can be highly amused and likely learn nothing. Ah, love.