Original and unique, both the story premise and the setting of Margaret Holton’s TRILLIUM triggered my interest. TRILLIUM tells the story of Canada’s Niagara Peninsula from the advent of the first European settlers in 1750 up to the beginning of this millennium, a story that becomes an epic journey not only through time but also a very specific location. A story? No: an epic saga of three families spanning generations. Three young settlers, Tom, Franco, and Paddy sow the seeds of the novel, that grows as organically as the peach trees in Tom’s orchard.
That enterprise alone merits praise, as it not only requires sound historical knowledge but also the skill to portray a lifestyle very different from ours. Historical novels are actual time machines, perhaps the only ones we will ever see. I certainly enjoyed being transported back into a world where the horseshoe falls were not besieged by tourism but were still a thundering miracle in a wondrous wilderness. I enjoyed reading about the struggles of the first Europeans and their interactions with the original dwellers of this land.
I would have loved to read more about these interactions, would have enjoyed seeing the story of a First Nation family woven into the strand. Alas, this is an author’s choice.
In a world where fast-paced, action-packed reads have become the norm, Holton goes the other way, giving us a narrative that is as unrushed and serene as a slow-flowing river. Steeped in what strikes me as a keen love for nature and lovingly viewed with the eye of an artist, Holton paints settings with words and shows us a place long lost in time.
“Franco watched the changing sky with wonder. Birds, beautiful colourful birds, big ones, little ones, fast ones, slow ones, divers, shore birds, hawks and dainty yellow-tailed finches, bold white gulls and swift black-tipped terns. So many birds. All circled the skies above feeding on the marshland below. Such abundance. Such glory.”
Indeed. Holton is at her best when she zooms in from the omniscient and shows us tantalising glimpses of a time when humanity was not so abundant as it is now. Nature is not there to be protected, it is a formidable opponent instead.
But just as nature isn’t always benign, Holton’s tale is not all peaches and roses, there’s plenty of conflict as well. One of the families, the O’Sullivans, acts as the proverbial snake in paradise. And they get to keep all the apples.
“Sean realised that fairness was not a virtue that his father or his grandfather ever subscribed to. Neither of those men were one iota like Tom Hartford. Sean knew O’Sullivans were grasping and greedy. They destroyed all in their way and wake. “
I trusted the author to bring it all to a satisfactory conclusion, and she did not disappoint. Now, is this amazing journey, filled to bursting capacity with a large cast of characters, without flaw?
Few novels ever are. I believe the biggest challenge was contained in the premise – to follow the footprints of three families over 250 years is an awe-inspiring endeavour. It comes at the cost of story dramatisation. I would have loved to see more of the characters, to follow them through the individual conflicts they fight – and by no means always win.
We are being given glimpses of this, but to a large degree, necessitated by the difficult task Holton set for herself, large parts of the story are told. Told exceedingly well, but still told. For me, that dulled the experience somewhat. I thoroughly enjoyed those moments where I was with the characters, hearing their voices, experiencing their strife. As I said, there is plenty of conflict in the story, but given the scope, not all of it is shown first hand.
Otherwise, this could well have been the Canadian version of “Outlander” – minus the magic, of course. Actually, magic isn’t needed here, or rather: It’s there, in the words.