Where White Horses Gallop By Beatrice MacNeil
I recently noticed a review in the Globe and Mail for Where White Horses Gallop, a novel by Beatrice MacNeil. I was not familiar with the author or the title, but the beginning of the review caught my interest, and it was written by Lewis DeSoto, a writer whose first novel, A Blade of Grass, I very much enjoyed. The cover of Where White Horses Gallop has a quote by another great writer, Alistair MacLeod, "This is a splendid novel". And so it is. In the weeks before reading it, I was feeling a desperate need for a novel that had some substance, a novel that had terrific writing and a thoroughly captivating story - and this is it. Set in Cape Breton before the Second World War, Beinn Barra is a remote, close knit community. We know right from the start that the eldest son of Joachim and Ona MacPherson, Callum, was killed in the war, that his younger brother Hamish has Down's Syndrome, and that the white horses are the design on a hooked rug.
"... four white horses galloping along a beaten path. The rug was as old as her son. She must remember to pull it up and preserve its life in mothballs. Some lives can be protected." – the thoughts of Callum's mother, Ona.
We are then introduced to the community in the years before the Second World War – the weekend dances, the extended family relationships, and the history shared for generations between neighbours. A village where the local priest, while condemning the dancing and drinking, "In the glebe house, poured himself a small brandy to ease the ache in his bone. Then a larger one to ward off eternal damnation". And the local trio of widows, who provide refreshments at the dances, as they observe the dancers, remembering the young men they danced with before an earlier war. The widows drinking their rum in teacups "glasses would be a clear giveaway to the rum if someone should waltz in on them now. A bag of peppermints lay on the middle of the table, beside the teapot full of rum."
The superstitions that we remember from our grandparents are evident throughout the novel. The crow, when seen by a young woman as her lover asks if she will wait, "one crow for sorrow" as a young girl feels "a chill bleed down her back". Beatrice MacNeil brings this world to life.
Joachim MacPherson is a man of few words. As he watches his family at the dance "something gnawed at his insides…Then he knew it was his heart. This was the kind of pain that kept men alive". Even while they dance, there is anxiety in the hearts of the villagers, among the parents and the sons who know they will soon go off to war. Callum tells Hamish that he is going away to "where white horses gallop" and that he will return one day and bring a white horse back for Hamish. The love between the members of the MacPherson family is strong, if unexpressed, except perhaps in action. Hamish has rescued a one-eyed hen with a damaged leg from slaughter, named her "Little Rachel" and chauffeurs her around town in a wagon that Joachim has built for him. In spite of his words of disgust, Joachim's actions belie his words. Ona has loved Hamish unconditionally since the day he was born as "If he can love, he can live", while Joachim builds his life around his strong, healthy son, Callum.
For me, it is the image of Hamish and Little Rachel, so very real, which is the thread that connects the characters and the story. There has been tragedy in this community in the past. Men killed, or damaged, in World War I, men drowned while fishing. Cassie MacGregor lost her husband to the sea. "She swore to Christ that widows had two hearts. One that kept them going for everyday living. And one they tried to settle at night when they felt themselves leave their senses."
Cassie's son, Alex, is a close friend to Callum, but they have never spoken of the death of Alex's father. A death that will haunt Alex and his family through their lives. Alex reflects, so many years later, on what he would say to his father – a very poignant thought.
The boys do go off to war, and it is indeed awful. There are deaths and damage and the lives of these characters, brought so fully to life by Beatrice MacNeil, are left in disarray. Even as they are part of it one young man says "This will all be history someday." It is our history. At a funeral, late in the novel, a father quotes, "They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old; Age will not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning we will remember them" and a mother comforts him with "'Bithidh latha eile ann'. There will be another day."
Should I challenge you not to cry? Yes, this novel is sad - tragic - but it is one of the best I have read in a long time. The writing is lyrical, and the story takes you into another time and place. As Alistair MacLeod wrote, "This is a splendid novel"