As two boys grow up in rural Struan in northern Canada, they cannot be more dissimilar. Since his uneasy birth, Jake, the younger, has been the source of his motherís pride: bright, articulate, with a sunny disposition, a world of promise ahead of him. In contrast, Arthur is burdened by his size and doleful personality, knowing well the other side of his brotherís nature: ďJake was a subtle bully, a devious bully.Ē
As Arthur toils beside his father on the farm, he is content, but he is forced to endure the rigors of the classroom, his mother believing in education above all. While his intelligent brother prospers in the educational setting, Arthur barely functions, suffering the ignominy of a sluggish mind through years of school he endures until World War II.
Both of their lives change radically when Jake is injured in a terrible accident, one that is his fault, the blame somehow shifting to Arthur, who can barely comprehend his own confused reaction: ďHe felt breathless with a kind of excitement, made up in equal parts of rage and retribution.Ē
Although Jake eventually recovers, a blooming enmity has grown between the brothers, an unsettled score that poisons their relationship, setting one against the other. When Arthur falls in love with Laura, the preacherís daughter, the die is cast; the charming, charismatic Jakeís wooing of her is inevitable and Arthurís undoing. What began as a sly one-upmanship on Jakeís part accelerates to a campaign with their mother as Jakeís unwitting pawn.
As reliable as a farm animal, Arthur is unquestioning, obedient and focused on the survival of the family farm, predictable in every respect. True to his nature, Arthur cleans up his brotherís wreckage yet is of little comfort to the mother emotionally devastated by Jakeís casual two-line goodbye note. Arthur survives the only way he knows how: his back bent to the work at hand.
Buffeted by economic insecurity and the devastation of a world war, Arthur and Jake act out their roles to a terrible conclusion preordained. Years later, Ian Christopherson, son of the townís only doctor, works part-time for Arthur, vaguely driven in by an adolescent attraction to Laura. When Jake returns after a long absence, Ian is unaware that he is a critical cog in the unfolding drama, the unwitting catalyst in the powerful denouement.
Lawson speaks in the language of that murky territory below the external lives of her characters, the tortured dynamic of two brothers with different needs and a country decimated by the loss of sons in war. Unable to protect himself, Arthur lives in fear, denying the knowledge of his brotherís ill-intentions, Jake unerring in destroying Arthurís dreams. The vast wheel of fate turns inexorably toward resolution and a shattering conclusion.