The Order of Good Cheer
By Bill Gaston. House of Anansi Press, 391 pp, $29.95, hardcover
Victoria writer Bill Gaston’s sixth novel, The Order of Good Cheer, is a challenging and provocative book that draws a thematic connection between the earliest days of North American colonization and the present threat of climate change.
Structurally, the novel alternates between two seemingly disconnected story lines separated by four centuries. In 1606, the explorer Samuel de Champlain is preparing for his second winter in the wilds of what will one day be Canada. Half of his men died of scurvy during their first winter, and he has a theory that it had to do with the lack of fresh foods in their diet. To remedy this, he creates the Order of Good Cheer—a nightly feast of food, drink, performance, and song, shared by both nobles and those of lower birth.
The present-day story features Andy Winslow in rainy Prince Rupert. Still single at 39, he has never fully recovered from the departure of his girlfriend, Laura, for Toronto 18 years earlier, when she broke his heart by mail. Andy lives alone and is prone to shower in his clothes. He is also undoubtedly the best-read man at the grain terminal where he has worked for two decades. Lately, he has been reading Champlain’s journals as well as books on climate change. Is there a link between the two?
Now, Laura is returning, and Andy is nervous and excited, imagining them getting back together. Meanwhile, the world around him is failing: the local economy is faltering, and one morning a big chunk of his back yard is swept into the ocean by an unseasonable storm. Trying to make sense of it all, Andy decides to stage his own Feast of Good Cheer.
Champlain succeeds in saving his men from scurvy, and one of them finds love with a local Native woman—situations that represent the first steps of a colonial effort that will eventually lead to our current state: a civilization in danger of environmental apocalypse.
But while the historical story succeeds, the present-day timeline falls flat. Andy’s end-of-book epiphany feels forced, leaving the reader wondering what the point of all this good cheer is, exactly.