Random House, Inc.
When Alice Lay Down with Peter is a sweeping, magical novel that follows four generations of the McCormack family through more than a century of Canadian history, as it unfolds on the flood plains of southern Manitoba. The story of Alice and Peter McCormack and their progeny is a glorious, witty, and intimate epic that truly reminds us that life stories not only include the details of the past, but also expand into the present and future, encompassing much more than the statistics of life and death would seem to admit. Narrated by Blondie McCormack -- Alice and Peter’s daughter, who has just died at the age of 109 -- When Alice Lay Down with Peter is a novel that rejoices in the inevitability of change, and in the hauntings that reward our choosing to remember our own history.
Blondie’s narrative begins before her own life does, in the late 1860s, when Alice falls in love with Peter in the Orkneys, just before he sails for a new life in the New World. Disguising herself as a man, Alice follows his route and joins the Métis buffalo hunt in southern Manitoba, where she finds both Peter and the life experience she needs. But the expansion of Canada has wrought havoc on the buffalo population, and the Métis have had their work and their land cut out from under them. A way of life is dying, just as Alice and Peter are beginning their life together.
When Alice lays down with Peter, the ground shakes, the sky opens up, and lightning strikes the lovers, wrapped around each other under the open sky. At that moment, they both know that Alice has become pregnant with their child. But Alice continues her disguise, and joins Peter in fighting alongside Louis Riel and the Métis, against efforts to bring the west into the Dominion. She even participates in the political execution of Riel’s foe Thomas Scott, and is haunted by his ghost for the rest of her days. But as their baby comes closer to term, Alice and Peter realize the need to create a home, and it is on their new property near St. Norbert that Blondie, our narrator, is born.
On this piece of land, the story of Alice and Peter continues, and repeats itself through the coming generations. Blondie grows into a young woman and falls in love with Eli, a young buffalo hunter who eventually is forced to leave her when changes to his life and land become too heavy a weight to bear. Unlike her mother, Blondie reacts against her pain by going into seclusion, and studying only topics foreign to her surroundings. But when Eli returns, Blondie escapes her self-imposed isolation to take part in the Boer War, dressed as a young soldier. It is only on her return that they truly find each other again, and their lightning-fused reunion brings about the conception of their daughter, Helen.
And in that remarkable way that every generation can be seen as an exercise in repetition with variation, the McCormack women continue to find their own ways in the world and find, out there, the means of rejoining their family’s story. The too-beautiful Helen marries rich, but escapes her husband to live as a tramp on the rails and ends up fighting in the Spanish Civil War. Helen’s daughter Dianna trains as a lawyer, but gives it up to pour her passion and rebellion into botanical illustration and political protest. Each woman follows a very different path away from the family, but finds that the forces connecting them to home are too strong for any outside events to break.
Just as When Alice Lay Down with Peter is a story of a family, it is a story of a particular place over time. Margaret Sweatman’s characters are never separate from the story of the land itself, or from the natural and political events that work away at its edges. The history of the McCormacks is a history of life on the land: of bountiful crops and devastating floods, the renewal of spring and the death that marks each fall. It is in the connection between the place and its inhabitants that we find the deceptively simple meaning of “home.” And it is to this conjoining of histories that Sweatman brings the lightning spark of her imagination, and out of which this wonderful novel has been born.