“It was the whisper that started their war. That’s how many at the table that evening would recall the summer of 1914.” So begins this epic tale that draws readers into the privileged lives of the wealthy Wyndham family. Set in a gracious era in an enchanting district of lakes known as Muskoka, this languid, hot, fateful summer unfolds.
At the Wyndhams’ opulent island summer “cottage”, Jack Wyndham confronts his formidable grandmother, Augusta, who had disowned his father twenty years earlier for marrying against her wishes. Having grown up destitute, Jack is determined to make his fortune by using the family and their connections. The Wyndhams’ circle of friends includes captains of industry and financial titans, like J.D. Thornton, whose charismatic eldest son, Chas, soon becomes Jack’s friend. But Jack also contrives to marry his plucky and headstrong cousin, Victoria. Initially intrigued by him, Victoria realizes that her heart lies elsewhere, and embarks on her own tempestuous journey. Succumbing to a powerful attraction to family friend and outspoken medical student Eleanor Carlyle, Jack begins an affair with her while seeking an eligible heiress to marry. It’s not in his plans to fall in love, but feisty Eleanor may challenge that.
Although Augusta admires Jack’s ambition and ruthlessness, she doesn’t trust him. When she mysteriously falls to her death from a cliff, Victoria wonders if Jack might have somehow been responsible, or perhaps it was her mad cousin, Phoebe, who is tormented by voices. But there are others who had a strong motive for doing away with autocratic Augusta, including a young gold-digger who schemes to marry Victoria’s embittered father. And there’s the maid, Molly, who isn’t at all what she appears to be.
Among the rich and engaging cast of characters are Victoria’s feminist cousin Zoë, Chas’s dissolute brother Rafe, an artists’ colony of Bohemians, American tycoons and writers, and numerous others. They are entwined in several subplots that help to portray and evoke post-Edwardian society. Woven through the narrative are references to or encounters with real people, such as artist Tom Thomson and American millionaire Alfred Vanderbilt, which enhance the historical context. More information about the cast can be found on this website.
The outbreak of war shatters not only the idyllic summer, but also the carefree lives of these idealistic summer friends, as the eager young men go valiantly off to fight for King and country. Young women, also wanting to do “their bit”, plan to work as volunteer nurses and ambulance drivers. All are profoundly affected by a conflict that tests their luck, strengths, loves, and loyalties. Inevitably, some fail.
The Summer Before the Storm is the first of “The Muskoka Novels”. Book 2, Elusive Dawn, continues to follow the lives, loves, and fortunes of the Wyndham family and their friends through the remainder of the Great War.
To get a sense of the story and setting, see this short book trailer.
Click here for info about the companion CD, Music for Muskoka, which has authentically rendered tunes of the era, as quoted in the novel.