‘The Elf of Invention’ of the Rockies and the Human Condition | Review of “The Three Sisters Bar and Hotel” by Katherine Govier (2016) HarperAvenue

The Canadian Rockies have always been this incredible draw for people but for varied reasons. But why? Is there some monumental truth to be found between those peaks? Is there some economic gain hidden there? Is it just a place where people live and etch out a living? In those questions, there lies an essence to the motivation of the human condition. And in her book The Three Sisters Bar and Hotel, Katherine Govier has carved out a brilliant saga in which readers can reflect on the human condition.

Heading Out (Pages 1-2)

Gateway, June 1911

Isabel stood on the platform. The caboose disappeared around the curve; the mountains closed in. The tallyho driver had loaded their trunks and sat, reins poised. Maxwell handed her father up into the seat. Doctor Professor Charles Hodgson would go directly to the Sanatorium. Tomorrow they would depart by pack train for the backcountry; tonight he would take the waters, in preparation.

“Come along, dear.”

“I won’t ride with thee, Father,” said Isabel. “I believe I’ll walk through town and over the bridge.”

He returned her gaze, pointedly. “You won’t take the baths?”

Doctor Professor Hodgson was keen to indulge, claiming benefits to health: you could take the hot sulphur waters Turkish, Russian or tub style. There were trained nurses. There was also an apothecary attached where a Quaker like him could purchase whisky. For medicinal purposes.

“I am not ill, thank thee.”

“It is your last chance for the whole summer. We won’t be back this way.” The professor turned to his man for support.

Maxwell stood blank-faced with his hands clasped behind his waist. Humphrey was halfway between his father and sister, indecisive.

“I want to stretch my legs, Father, Walk in the fresh air.” Isabel was delicate but could be wilful.

“Well then, Maxwell, you’d better go with her. There are me her who can manage the bags.”

Humphrey followed her lead, so it was brother and sister and Maxwell the butler who walked down Main Street from the station on a perfect blue-sky day in the Rocky Mountains. Their legs loosened. The hair blew in the wind. The sun spared like electricity. Before they had gone far they came to a strange-shaped building, log on the bottom and hip roof on the top, with a big veranda and a rail to which small, patient horses were hitched. The sign read THE THREE SISTERS HOTEL. They climbed the steps and went in.

Govier has been crafting (note the word ‘crafting’ is in italics) this story for years,  which her fans have been eagerly waiting. And it a saga that has been worth waiting for. The plot covers about 100 years around the region of a town called Gateway. We are introduced to Herbie Wishart, a colourful individual who has reinvented himself as a trail guide for the area. He is about to lead an American scientist and his family into the wilds of the backcountry. It is Herbie and the events around that exploration that will confound and influence characters in the book for decades long afterwards.

Page 130-131

The light began to go not long after dinner; summer was ended. Half-heartedly they tried to dispatch the child to bed, but excited by the thought of seeing her family, Gwen would not go. There was a card table the doctor looked at out of the corner of his eye; he normally played poker at this time of day. Then came a knock on the door, and a man was led into the parlour, his hat twitching in his hands. But this was not Wishart either.

“This is Mr. Erwin,” instructed the doctor. “He’s one of our best packers. Excuse me a minute.” He pulled Erwin aside. “Any sign of the them? What am I to tell her? Why have you left this to me? Where the hell is Wishart?”

“He’s searching. I don’t need to tell you, he’s taken it to heart, Doctor.”

“Come and meet Miss Gwen Hodgson,” said the doctor.

Francis Erwin bowed to Gwen grandly and took her hand to his hips. He answered the doctor’s question while still smiling at the girl: “Wishart will be along in just a day or two.”

“What is he doing?” said Gwen

“Searching,” Erwin told her, straight on. “I was too.”

“For what?”

“For your father’s party.”

“Why?”

“They left their camp but did not arrive at the meeting spot. We think they may be lost.”

Gwen pulled in her chin abruptly. She looked like her father then. “They can’t be lost,” said Gwen. “They’re likely just dilly-dallying.”

“I’m sure you’re right,” said Erwin. “you know all about dilly-dallying don’t you? Do you know how to ride?”

“A little.”

Govier has crafted (again, note that word is in italics) brilliant fiction here. A perfect mix of research, imagination and personal reflection are what make this book a great read. Her descriptions are vivid yet simple and her characters are endearing and believable. Govier has been referred often as being a brilliant storyteller and this book proves that fact.

The Elf of Invention Pages 272-273

On the Trail, August 3, 1928

Past Beguiling, over Bewitching Pass and onto a high meadow that unrolled toward farther peaks. It was strange to get up above one’s world and find another layer, another world laid out. There were hillocks and bubbles and the ground had a spongy texture. An eagle gliding over caught nothing because the ground squirrels were allied against it, sticking their heads out of their burrows and peeping to warn each other. Precarious on a bare rocky rise, a herd of mountain sheep paused to look back at them, and Herbie got out his gun. Gus scrambled after him, hiding behind boulders. The pack train stopped while Herbie and Gus got the kill. The artist took his time, arranging the ram’s head on his lap for a photograph first, and the taking out the folding easel. When the sketch was finished Herbie got his knife and eviscerated the creature. Snares took the carcass to pieces and boiled it.

“Now you’ll be able to say you’ve eaten goat soup,” said Long Lance.

“A day’s march and farther up another pass, through it, down again and beyond, toward the northwest. At night the packhorses were released from their loads and their halters. In the morning they came reluctantly to Herbie’s curses. One day when they were being roped into their load there was a loud cracking followed by rumbles: white thunder. An avalanche across the gap. The ponies bolted. One of them tried to leap over a clutch of stunted trees, caught his foot and fell; the pack loosened and the goods spilled. The pony cantered off, ropes trailing. Wishart unleashed a vocabulary that only began with Goddamned sons of bitches, get your sorry asses back here or I’ll have your testicles for a hat rack. Whore’s tits, hell’s bell’s Jesus wept, bollacks and balls.

The ponies recognized it was a crisis and trotted back for reloading.

The Three Sisters Bar and Hotel by Katherine Govier is one of my favourite reads of 2016. It is a well-crafted (again crafted is in italics for a reason.) that not just tells a story but reflects on the human condition. It sits proudly on my bookshelf. There will be copies given to friends far and wide. And I will be re-reading it again soon.

*****

Link to Katherine Govier’s website

Link to HarperCollins Canada’s webpage for The Three Sisters Bar and Hotel

Link to Katherine Govier’s Q&A with me for The Three Sisters Bar and Hotel

2 thoughts on “‘The Elf of Invention’ of the Rockies and the Human Condition | Review of “The Three Sisters Bar and Hotel” by Katherine Govier (2016) HarperAvenue

  1. Excellent, thoughtful & thought-provoking review Stephen! Bibliobroads love Katherine Govier’s ‘great big read’ about the early Canadian West. Indeed, it’s our book club choice for April. Good work.

    Liked by 1 person

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