Alone: A Winter in the Woods – In the winter of 1797, John Turner and his father Elias, Loyalists originally from New York, arrive at their 200-acre grant of land in Newcastle District in Upper Canada. They’ve travelled on foot through deep snow and over frozen bays and inlets to make the seventy-mile trek from Adolphustown. With them on the 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. These will be the start of the farm the Turners plan to create, after they first clear some of the land and build a log cabin and a shelter for the animals.
When the time comes for his father to return to Adolphustown to fetch the rest of the family, thirteen-year-old John will be left on his own to fend for himself in their little clearing in the wilderness. The adventure that follows illustrates 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? 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 the new township, there will be no neighbours for John to call on for assistance. He does meet one other traveller, a Methodist preacher named William Black, whose circuit is Quinte’s Isle. The kindly circuit rider gives John a New Testament, a quill and a bottle of ink, and some paper that John folds into a small book. Here he 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 John a year-old pup he calls Bonnie. She is company for John, and they 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. “Depend on the Lord and rely on your good sense,” Pa tells the boy.
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 knows where he is, or even that he still exists.
The book is filled with such vivid descriptions of the forest of Upper Canada, the rivers and marshes, the glimpses of Lake Ontario 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 going that burns in a pit in the middle of the cabin’s earth floor, 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, and he has to make careful decisions.
When Bonnie has a painful encounter with a porcupine John must extract the barbed quills from its 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, making birch bark tiles for the cabin roof, preparing simple meals for himself from a few dried beans and ships biscuits, deciding how to tap the maple trees when the sap begins to run and fashion a bucket to collect it. There is so much information here that the book belongs in every Ontario classroom studying the lives of the Loyalist settlers. The author’s use of actual place names adds authenticity to the story.
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 in Adolphustown 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 warning not to go after her if this happens 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.
With Alone, Canadian author Felicity Sidnell delivers a compelling, at times harrowing, adventure story that will be enjoyed by readers of any age. Highly Recommended.