When Alice Lay Down with Peter
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.
READ AN EXCERPT
These are my beginnings.
Imagine heat. In the coupled loins of Alice (wearing wool pants and a heavy flannel shirt and, strangest of all, leather chaps, for he’d taken her while they chased a herd of thirsty cattle east from Turtle Mountain to the Pembina hills) and her skinny, ardent...
1. From the moment Blondie tells us that she lays “dead as a stick” in her garden and launches into her narrative, our attention is drawn to the ways in which death and destruction are necessary triggers for birth and renewal. How does this theme run through the novel, in terms of both the land and the...
“When Alice Lay Down With Peter is a galloping family epic that’s reined in, but not tamed, by a wry humour. Sweatman teases us, with a wink and a nudge, into going along with her tall tales, and we do go along, because the details she gives root us compellingly in time and place. Sweatman is so obviously in love with the larger-than-life landscape of this novel that we can’t help but fall in love along with her. This is a rollicking, erotic, magical read.” -- Gail Anderson-Dargatz
“When Alice Lay Down With Peter is an intricate love letter to the flood plain of southern Manitoba, a landscape that Margaret Sweatman convincingly crafts as the centre of the world. An uncommon family saga, it is also, at times, a riotously funny account of a radical, roistering and shocking prairie history. Margaret Sweatman’s writing is both muscular and musical. In her richly layered evocations of worlds social, political, natural and supernatural, the reader can never slip into anything like complacency. This is a streaking comet of a novel and I really do think it’s extraordinary.” -- Bill Richardson
“Stark acts and facts of history are lovingly embroidered by Sweatman’s gift for discription: winter days are ‘as crisp and short and dark as an eighth note’; a stilted dinner consists of ‘steamed curiosity and fried frustration.’ When Alice Lay Down With Peter is an exuberant, generous, magical retelling of Canadian history.” -- Quill and Quire
"Sweatman's style is loose and poetic. Her elliptical dance through history is reminiscent of Jane Urquhart's, in The Whirlpool and Away. Novelists have often told us more about our shared past than historians: think Tolstoy, Dickens or Balzac. Overwhelmed by our vast geography, Canadian fiction writers have been slow to mine the rich bedrock of Canadian history. But writers such as Sweatman, Urquhart, Audrey Thomas and Fred Stenson are finally rescuing our past from the "boring" academic ghetto to which it was consigned. They bring it alive by presenting it as a shimmering tapestry of individual stories rather than a linear trudge through political and economic progress." -- Charlotte Gray, National Post (September 29, 2001)
“When Alice Lay Down With Peter is all over the historical and geographical map, an exuberant romp through history which…covers all bases and leaves no stone unturned. …It is quite a journey, good-humoured, sad, eventful and originally conceived, a riotous excursion….Sweatman…is an original writer whose deft handling of history, although flamboyant, can be effective…her characters are well described…..Sweatman’s tour through history is witty, humane and full of surprises, a lament for human folly and a salute to human resilience.” -- London Free Press
“This is the sort of book Larry McMurtry might write if he had a taller talent and deeper sensitivity….What a relief to find a novel of serious intent utilizing a narrative that really zips along.” -- George Fetherling, Vancouver Sun
“Sweatman’s writing graciously flows from generation to generation carrying with it the phrases and habits of ancestors. There are passages tinged with magic…Sweatman allows the landscape to come alive….[L]eaves the reader feeling that this story is continuing outside the confines of thie novel.” -- Books in Canada (01 Jan 02)