‘A Place to Stand’


Reviewed by Janet Nicol

A Place to Stand: A Tale of the Peace River Country J.W. Secrist. Bloomington, Indiana, Authohouse, 2006. 307 p. $19.99 paperback.

A Place to Stand is a historical novel delivering authentic tales of the Peace River country through the lives of three generations of the Brennan family. The author Jerry Secrist, a retired teacher living in British Columbia’s north east region, has listened well to the people of his community. He portrays his characters as courageous and determined, qualities demanded of pioneering homesteaders and their descendants. But Secrist also describes their flaws, revealing incidents of hard drinking, petty rivalries and violence.

The novel’s central character is Liam Brennan whose memories of early life in Ireland dissolve without regret as he begins a new life following military service in the First World War. He travels with his Belgian wife Marta to the last undeveloped fertile wilderness of North America and together they build a home on the Peace River near Fort St. John.

Liam and Marta are met by their First Nations neighbor, Noah, soon after they arrive. This encounter is brief and holds some tension but will come to a satisfying conclusion when Liam and Noah meet again as old men. The Brennans have four children and enjoy economic success as their farm expands over time. Liam never stops working and when a government-initiated dam is built along the Peace River following the Second World War, Liam reluctantly assists, knowing ‘progress’ comes with a price.

While Liam revels in his homestead, Marta, though a strong and loyal wife, is less at ease, especially in the early years. Their two eldest sons Jack and Willie die tragically in their twenties and their younger twin children, Joanna and Paul turn from the farm in favor of the educated, urban world.

On the margins of the family are grandson Carson and granddaughter Tassy. Carson is a troubled youth, but finds grace saving Liam’s life following a bear attack. Tassy explores her First Nations’ roots, building her sense of self with Marta’s generous and empathetic help. As a result, both grandchildren come to fill the ’empty nest’ in Liam and Marta’s home.

A Place to Stand would benefit from tougher editing. The novel really begins when the Brennans arrive at their homestead. Brennan’s war experience and encounter with Marta in the opening pages would be told more effectively in flashback sequences. Also unnecessary is the brief turn to first-person narrations in the middle of the novel, breaking the flow of ‘omniscient’ storyteller.

But this is a labor of love and the author’s heart-felt feeling for the beauty of the Peace district appears in many passages, such as: “In the background they saw a mountain range running what looked like perpendicular to the river. There was a great notch in the mountains, and through it, they could see, stretching away into the hazy mist of the western horizon, range after range of purplish, snow-capped mountains.” These tales of the Peace River country give the reader a deeper insight into a special corner of British Columbia.

Reprinted from British Columbia History.  Vancouver:2007. 

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