Providence Island

Ray's father, a widowed city lawyer, did not acquire a lakeside mansion but an inland farm-house on a creek and in an area of bush, fields, and swamps, up the road from the resort community where the Millers and other wealthy summertime residents live. So the place Ray knows as Muskoka is the more remote and rural setting of those descended from early settlers, and he comes to be seen as one of them, speaking the local argot and closer to nature, thanks to boyhood adventures, than the visitors in their lavishly gardened and well manicured summer homes.

Yet the summer jobs Ray gets, washing dishes at the prestigious lakeside golf club and docking boats during gala parties at the Miller's Providence Island spread where wealthy summer residents indulge themselves, enable him, because he is also a city boy, to blend in, at least to a small degree, with these plutocrats.

Not only enchanted by their money and power, Ray is smitten by the Miller's beautiful daughter Quentin, who is older than he and whose wiles range from stripping naked to dive from the end of the dock, to challenging Ray to scale a rock face which she can ascend but he cannot. She also understands, as he does not, that a summer kiss is just a summer kiss. It's a combo that drives him to distraction.

It probably goes without saying that young Carrier, who moves between these two Muskoka worlds, has secrets of his own, and becomes privy to clues about other secrets that remain mysterious coils of motivation throughout the unfolding story. Within such tangles, we discover, lie the truths of paradox.

A classic "coming of age" story, Providence Island begins in the present moment of adult Carrier's fragmenting life in the United States, then connects to the unfolding drama of his father's inexplicable action with a boat and his death back in Muskoka, and proceeds through a gradual unfolding of the tale of Ray and his dad and the deep forces that propell each of them.

Use of this flash-back device is common enough in movies and novels, intended to capture a sense of immediacy at the start and an easy way to tie up any loose details at the end. In Providence Island, this way of telling the story also gives Robinson a good means for portraying what Muskoka was like a half-century ago in contrast to what it has become today, thanks to the potency of contrast.

Robinson's style of writing also serves this same purpose, though it can take a reader awhile to realize or accept that the slow-pace and exquisite detail about inconsequential things serves to set the pace of youthful life in Muskoka countryside decades ago, rather than simply being exquisite detail about inconsequential things.

Eventually, the power of the story emerges, takes hold, and the pace picks up. In this, one can appreciate – if they have the patience to stay with the book – how the writing tracks the growth and experience of young Carrier himself, in artful parallel to his human trajectory.

Throughout the tale runs the raw edge of rebellion – from local boys not staying confined to their "place" in the social hierarchy, to sons of privilege wanting to "go native" with locals. The usual misalignments in love affairs produce not mere heartbreak, but tragedy. The sharp antagonisms and moral emptiness within families are papered over by the usual methods according to one's social station: glamorous parties for the wealthy, desperate boredom of adults who escape through books or knitting, and back-lot booze-ups and gang-bangs for the restless young. Robinson paints nature with poetic attention to detail, human nature with uncompromising realism.

John Ibbitson's novel The Landing also portrays in vivid, down-to-earth realty the coming of age of a young local man through his relationship with a wealthy American widow summering on Lake Muskoka west of Gravenhurst, and there are other interesting parallels with Providence Island. Ibbison grew up in Gravenhurst, writes for the Globe and Mail, has written several plays, and won the governor-general's award for The Landing. Gregor Robinson cottages in Muskoka, lives in Toronto, is likewise a playwright, and has also been nominated for literary awards, his earlier books being The Dream King and Hotel Paradiso.

Most interesting is how each author choses to present Muskoka. Gravenhurst is present in The Landing, right down to a concert in the Opera House, although for the community west of town where the main action unfolds it takes someone familiar with south Lake Muskoka to identify Ibbitson's fictionalized community as Walker's Point and Campbell's marina. In Providence Island, however, Muskoka is the district that dares not speak its name.

Robinson describes to a tee the area around Beaumaris, the golf course, and the island estates of wealthy Americans, but they are fictionalized. Milford Bay becomes Merrick Bay. Clear references to Muskoka history, such as the coming of the free grant land settlers, are likewise unmistakable. Yet author Robinson seeks to abstract his saga to a universal level by never mentioning Muskoka by name.

How readers experience life through the stories of good writers includes being able to connect what is happening on the page to experience and emotions in our own lives, such as the jagged battleground of social and cultural interactions between regular locals and the wealthy minority who live and play in their midst. Of course this is a universal experience, but it still has to happen somewhere.

The conflicts between locals and interloping plutocrats in The Great Gatsby become understandable because F. Scott Fitzgerald placed them in the recognizable setting of Long Island. In Ibbitson's The Landing and Douglas Specht's Nokomis, the well-known Muskoka setting is not only background setting but almost a character in the story, with only the names of a few locales changed to fictionalize the tale.

The compelling saga of Ray Carrier could only happen in a mixed community of locals and those who intermittently alight among them long enough to revive the local economy and throw peoples' lives into another round of turmoil. Despite his desire to abstract and generalize this story, Robinson offers a wrenching tale that will cut to the quick anyone who grew up in or knows about mid-twentieth century Muskoka.

— Review by J. Patrick Boyer

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