In early morning, a boy can see groups of loggers out in the cold, anonymous men who carry lanterns and already seem exhausted before the day has begun. When the men cross a farmer taking his cows to the milking barns, the farmer nods, finding some comfort in knowing that he is not alone outside so early in the morning. The boy sees the loggers pass by, and imagines them later swinging their axes against trees that are as hard as metal. He pictures their sweat and fatigue, and also knows that some of them die of pneumonia or the chemicals in the factories where they work in other seasons.
The fact that Patrick is not immediately given a name preserves an aura of mystery, emphasizing his childish curiosity and powers of observation instead of a narrowly specific identity. Similarly, the workers are never defined with specific details. In this way, through their names and their actions, they are shown to be a group at the margins of society. It is only once Patrick will discover (much later in the novel) that these men are Finnish immigrants, that they will finally have an identity and a history.
The men have little contact with the town, and neither the boy nor his father has ever entered the temporary shacks they set up for the winter while the river is still frozen. The loggers only enter the town when they skate along the river, making skates out of old knives.
The townspeople’s lack of contact with the loggers emphasizes the loggers’ cultural exclusion from ordinary society. It also highlights the economic precariousness of their situation, as their jobs depend on seasonal conditions.
During summer nights, the boy loves turning out the lights and, while his father is sleeping, looking at a geography book in the kitchen, where he leaves a light on. He repeats the exotic names of places to himself, appreciating the book cover, a multicolored depiction of the map of Canada.
Patrick’s approach to the atlas reveals his artistic, fanciful approach to the world, as he seems less interested in the actual geography than the beauty of the words and pictures. It also suggests that national identity is arbitrary, barely represented by a mix of colors on a map.
Fighting off sleep, the boy puts the book back on the dark living-room shelves and returns to the kitchen, where he hopes that insects, attracted by the light, will have stuck to the screens. He examines the various types of insects, fascinated by their shapes. Later, he will discover the true names and characteristics of the bugs he invented fanciful names for. He no longer tries to open the screen and capture the bugs, because when he did it once the scared insect moved around wildly, in turn terrifying the boy. Instead, in the kitchen light, the boy, called Patrick, examines their jaws and wings with fascination. He wonders if they can hear anything and if they are silently trying to show him something by returning so often to the kitchen screen.
Patrick’s imagination as a child is attracted to a variety of stimuli, whether artistic and intellectual (as the atlas suggests) or part of the natural world (as his fascination for bugs reveals). This suggests that art and nature are complimentary, as Patrick’s fascination is in large part an interest in the insects’ beauty. It suggests that, with the right disposition, anyone can find beauty and magic in the world around them. Patrick’s humble interest in these insects’ minds also foreshadows the respect and compassion he will demonstrate toward human beings as an adult, as he tries to respect everyone’s lives.
The region Patrick has grown up in has only recently become official. Even though settlers have been there since 1815, the area was only named in 1910, two decades after the boy’s family began working there. It is only thanks to logging that the river will be named Depot Creek, after the French “Deep Eau.”
The gap between the official narrative and people’s actual lives shows that, for decades, Patrick’s family has lived at the margins of official society. This will impact his detached (even skeptical) attitude toward national identity and government intervention.
Patrick’s father does manual work on a few farms. One day, Patrick and his father search for a missing cow, which they find in the frozen river. Using a rope, Patrick and his father try to move the cow forward. This involves perilous operations, such as diving beneath the ice and working as fast as possible so that neither the cow nor they will freeze. They succeed in tying two ropes around the animal and, when Patrick looks up, he is amazed to notice the blue sky, feeling grateful for—and surprised at—such beauty after the dangerous rescue he has been immersed in.
This episode suggests that foreign workers such as the loggers are not the only ones taking part in strenuous, potentially dangerous physical labor. The need for Patrick and his father to risk their lives to save a single cow highlights their modest means. It also suggests that the primary bond between the two family members is work itself—not conversation or expressions of love.
When Patrick’s father attaches the ropes to the horses, the horses move forward and succeed in pulling a seemingly bored cow out of the water. Even though Patrick’s father has often insisted that rope is precious and knots must always be untied instead of cut, he does not succeed in untying the knot around the cow and thus decides to cut it, which surprises Patrick, who sees this as an extravagant act. As the cow begins to run back home, Patrick says that he will not save her a second time and his father agrees, laughing.
The cutting of the knot shows that Patrick’s father calculates all of his movements, even his most seemingly outrageous ones, as he determines what is superfluous and what is necessary. This moment of laughter is the only episode in the entire novel in which Patrick is seen laughing and conversing with his father. It suggests that, even though Patrick’s father seems deeply unemotional, the two of them still share a strong bond, defined by mutual respect for their work.
That night, Patrick’s father allows the boy to sleep in the same bed as him, sharing warmth, and they sleep without acknowledging the proximity of their bodies. Looking at the fire, Patrick imagines himself in the summer, burning caterpillar tents through fields, and then falls asleep.
Patrick’s father’s gesture is both loving and practical. Allowing Patrick in his bed shows that he is making an exceptional gesture of inclusion, at odds with his reserved nature, but also follows a practical consideration: to keep Patrick’s body from suffering from their earlier dive in the frozen water.
Patrick remembers his father, Hazen Lewis, practicing using dynamite. Hazen would draw the outline of Patrick on a table and practice blowing out a section of wood where the head was. A recluse uninterested in socialization, Patrick’s father focused on his work exclusively, even treating horses as though they were inanimate vehicles.
Unlike Patrick’s fascination with the natural world, his father is uninterested in any aspect of life that is not purely practical. At the same time, Hazen’s experiments with dynamite are eerie, suggesting a desire to take someone’s life and a possibly more complex, darker side of his personality.
When Patrick is fifteen, his father takes the only risk he ever took in his life: he blows up a tree with dynamite instead of chopping it with an axe. From that moment, he decided to become a dynamite expert. Mr. Lewis then goes to the local timber company, demonstrating his skills, and receives a job with them along Depot Creek and Napanee River. The longest speech he ever gives in his life are his words to the company’s staff explaining that, according to him, the only judicious jobs in logging are being a dynamiter or a cook.
Even Hazen’s most daring action remains purposeful and well calculated, as it increases Hazen’s job opportunities. The fact that his longest speech relates to his work shows how narrow his interests are, as it becomes obvious that his entire life revolves around work. At the same time, it also highlights that, for Hazen, such manual labor is also a source of creativity and pleasure.
In the winter, loggers work all day along the chain of Depot Lakes to cut down trees. In April, when the lake ice begins to melt, they take part in the most dangerous task: moving the trees down the river. Logs that remain jammed in narrow stretches of the river need a dynamiter to dislodge them. In these cases, Hazen Lewis and Patrick arrive. After taking off his clothes, Patrick covers himself in oil and swims among the logs, making signs to his father every thirty seconds to reassure him. Patrick then catches the charge and lights the powder. He walks back to his father, dries himself, and the two of them ride away without looking behind them at the explosion that takes place.
The description of the loggers’ difficult tasks highlights the repetitiveness of this type of manual labor, as well as its many dangers. Patrick’s time swimming to help his father foreshadows his later political actions, in which he will use his skills as a dynamiter to express anger against the rich. However, at this point in Patrick’s life, neither his father nor he seems discontented with their position in life. Rather, they seem to derive pride and pleasure from the precision and efficiency of their actions, instead of their actions’ consequences.
During river runs, Patrick watches the cook bring loggers food and drift back down the river to camp. In the meantime, Hazen dreams of dynamiting someone’s body by attaching the fuse to someone’s pants. He remains brooding and uncommunicative and teaches his son nothing besides what Patrick can observe. When Patrick shows disregard for his father’s habit of washing his clothes carefully to remove any trace of explosives, Hazen Lewis throws his shirt in the fire. There, the shirt explodes, thus giving Patrick a lesson.
Hazen’s thoughts about killing another human suggest that rebellion might be brewing underneath the surface and, perhaps, that he does not accept his position in society as easily as it seems. Once again, Hazen’s lack of communication with Patrick is not meant as disregard for his son’s well-being, since Hazen means to protect his son’s life, even if his affection does not express itself through words.
Later, Patrick realizes that he learned important things during this period, but always through distant observation, by watching his father’s behavior. He recalls the emotionless way in which his father sometimes sang at square dances, and remembers repeating the same lyrics softly to himself the next day.
Patrick’s imitation of his father’s behavior suggests that he admires Hazen, even if he does not demonstrate it openly. It also reveals that Patrick is likely to follow in his father’s footsteps—as his later career as a dynamiter indeed demonstrates.
One winter night when Patrick is eleven, he decides to walk out of the kitchen to follow a moth that has caught his attention. Initially thinking he will not stray far, he soon finds himself walking farther in the snow than expected. When he notices flickers of light in the distance, he feels compelled to keep on walking, although he knows that it could not be fireflies because the last one died in one of his handkerchiefs. Years later, this fact will come back to his mind while Clara and he are making love in a car and she throws his semen-incrusted handkerchief out the window.
Patrick’s unexpected night expedition in the snow suggests that following one’s imagination (in this case, his fascination for insects) can lead to magical discoveries. The mention of Patrick’s later romantic relationship with Clara represents an abrupt switch to adulthood, but suggests that the enchanted, carefree quality of childhood can expand beyond childhood itself, through love and spontaneity.
As Patrick walks, he sees the lights become more definite, hears laughter, and finally reaches the lake, where he sees the loggers skating around, carrying torches made of plants. As the men chase each other and sometimes create sparks when their lanterns collide, the scene strikes Patrick as otherworldly and magical. Although he feels a sharp sense of identity with this river and he yearns to take part in the men’s game, finding it romantic, he trusts neither himself nor these foreigners enough to join them. He begins walking home, feeling that at this point in his life his mind seeks things that his body does not yet follow.
This magical scene brings softness and playfulness to Patrick’s life, which seems largely regulated by the harshness of seasons and the rigor of manual labor. In turn, the men’s game makes them seem more complex, more fully human than their role as loggers might allow. It suggests that behind each anonymous worker lies a curious, energetic soul waiting to express itself. Patrick’s yearning to become part of this community foreshadows his later appreciation of the Macedonian immigrants in Toronto.