This exquisite short novel is about a young anglican priest sent to a native outpost in the wilds of Canada and describes in lovely, elegaic prose how he becomes, with his patience and non-judgmental attitude towards his parishoners, accepted as part of the native community. Because we are told right from the beginning that he is dying and doesn‘t know it, this book could so easily have become a tear-jerker, but it isn‘t (I probably would have cried anyway if I‘d read it as a teenager full of raging hormones). It is open (and dry)-eyed about death and doesn‘t preach religion as books about religious persons have an unfortunate tendency to, but yet gives one a deep sense of faith, fatalism and acceptance. The message is that in order to accept death, one muct first learn to live and to accept life with both the good and the bad.
It is also a perfect example of a story brought to its logical conclusion, one which, to some, might seem unfair or unhappy, but to my mind could not be bettered. Although the execution of the ending is somewhat unexpected, it does not feel tacked-on, clumsy or wrong (on that subject refer to my reviews of My Sister‘s Keeper and The Elegance of the Hedgehog) and deftly avoids the shmaltzy, pathetic or over-dramatic death scenes that have plagued some other literary novels I have read. The death scene is unemotional, sketched in few details, and somehow just right.
If the book has a fault, it is that of seemingly glossing over the problems of the native community, but since it isn‘t supposed to be a novel about social ills but about a personal journey, this is a minor fault. If one pays attention, one can find a deep sorrow and sympathy for these people who are slowly but inexorably being uprooted from their native culture without being transplanted wholly into the white man‘s culture.