Written by: Felicity Sidnell Reid
Published by: Hidden Brook Press
Reviewed by: Peggy Dymond Leavey
After the end of the American War of Independence, in the winter of 1797, thirteen-year-old John Turner and his father, Elias, settlers originally from New York, arrive at their 200-acre grant of land on the north shore of Lake Ontario in Upper Canada.
They’ve already traveled on foot through deep snow and over frozen bays and inlets to make the seventy-mile trek from where the family had first landed. With them on this journey are two oxen, hauling a sled laden with supplies; Milly, the cow; and in a coop buried deep in the bottom of the sled, a rooster and three hens — the genesis of the farm the Turners plan to start. But first they must clear some of the land and build a log cabin and a shelter for the animals.
When the time comes for his father to fetch the rest of the family, young John will be left on his own to fend for himself in their little clearing in the wilderness. The adventure that follows is an example of the strength of the human spirit.
Will John be up to the challenge? Does he have the courage and tenacity to survive alone for three months? In the winter? It’s a fearful proposition, but John recalls his grandfather’s saying that if you’ve never been afraid, then you cannot be brave.
Because the Turners’ is the first land grant in a new township, there will be no neighbors for John to call on for assistance. He and his father are fortunate to meet one other traveler, a Methodist preacher named William Black. The kindly circuit rider gives John a New Testament, a quill and a bottle of ink, and some paper that John fashions into a small book. It is here that John will record the important events in his solitary life and keep a tally of the days until he is no longer alone. Best of all, Brother Black brings the boy a year-old pup he calls Bonnie. She is company for John, and they are able to keep each other warm at night, under the bear skin covering on the bed.
From the time his father leaves at the end of February, John is responsible for keeping himself and the animals alive. Buoyed by his father’s faith in him, John still has to face the fact that now, except for Pa and Brother Black, no one in the whole world knows where he is, or even that he still exists.
The book is filled with such vivid descriptions of the dense forest, the rivers and marshes, the glimpses of the lake in the distance, and the changing seasons that the reader easily imagines sharing John’s surroundings.
Besides the daily routine of caring for the animals, collecting water for cooking and drinking, keeping the fire that burns in a pit in the middle of the cabin’s earthen floor going, and gathering moss to fill the cracks between the logs, John must use all his ingenuity to come up with solutions to the challenges he faces at every turn. Every decision must be well thought out.
When Bonnie has a painful encounter with a porcupine John is forced to extract the barbed quills from the dog’s face or risk losing his only companion. He helps birth Milly’s calf and then keeps a vigil all night to protect the newborn from the hungry wolves that appear at the edge of the clearing.
Felicity Sidnell Reid details many of the tasks John undertakes, how he makes birch bark tiles for the cabin roof, prepares simple meals for himself from a few dried beans and ships biscuits, decides how to tap the maple trees when the sap begins to run and to fashion a bucket to collect it. There is so much information here that I feel that the book belongs in every middle school classroom studying the lives of the settlers.
Between some of the chapters in John Turner’s narrative are diary excerpts written by Josephine Fontaine, a French-speaking girl from Montreal who lives with the Turner family. These entries give the reader insight into what is happening back home, while the family awaits the father’s return and then as they prepare for the journey to the new homestead.
When spring finally comes to John’s tiny clearing in the woods, and the ice leaves the creek, Bonnie unexpectedly runs away. Distraught, John ignores his father’s earlier warning not to go after her if this were to happen and thus neglect his responsibilities at the homestead.
Eventually, he finds the dog stranded on the opposite side of the flooded river, and in his attempt to rescue her, comes close to drowning himself. While he struggles against the strong current he is struck by a large tree branch and dragged out into the deep water.
Alone: A Winter in the Woods is a story about the challenges of existence in the bush and the isolation and loneliness early settlers had to deal with.
Canadian author Felicity Sidnell Reid delivers a compelling, at times harrowing, adventure story that will be enjoyed by readers of any age. Available in the US from amazon.com.
Peggy Dymond Leavey is the author of the biographies Molly Brant, Laura Secord, Mary Pickford, and nine novels for young readers.