The Order of Good Cheer
by Bill Gaston
House of Anansi, 400 pages, $29.95
When all is despair, and hope is near lost, what is the one event that perks up man’s spirits so that he may carry in on the face of adversity? Apparently, a party.
At least, that’s what the two protagonists in Bill Gaston’s extraordinary new novel The Order of Good Cheer would have us believe. And as one of the two is legendary explorer Samuel de Champlain, allowing Gaston the benefit of a doubt would seem appropriate.
The Order of Good Cheer, aside from being co-opted by Gaston for his title, was a series of feast nights begun by Champlain in the settlement of Annapolis Royal in 1607. After a harsh experience with the perils of the Canadian wilderness, Champlain’s idea was to hold a meal to celebrate “our new home, and our own good company, and the good cheer that God provides.”
Such feasts became legendary, and may also have helped abate the scurvy that plagued the solders throughout their tenure in the north. Champlain’s Order was seen as a celebration of fellowship and, to Gaston’s mind, a vital component in keeping the men of the settlement, “eager to break from winter’s damning confines,” in high spirits and healthy mind.
Flash-forward 400 years, and Andy Winslow suffers from a similar dilemma. Where Champlain was confronted with “the blooming restlessness” of an untamed Canadian winter, Andy faces a challenging environment of man’s own design: “the seas were rising and throwing dead fish on the beach, the third world was kindling, everyone’s weather was wrong.”
As Andy undergoes the rigours of life in the economically strained township of Prince Rupert, he, too, faces loneliness and uncertainty, exacerbated by the impending arrival of his childhood sweetheart after twenty years apart. Inspired by his reading of Champlain, he decides to follow the example and host a party of unusual foods and circumstances, “[a] time to gather and toast each other with candle-light glinting in all eyes and off smiling teeth.”
By now, it is an accepted fact that Gaston is one of the most talented writers currently on the Canadian literary scene. His novels and short story collections have all been critically acclaimed, with his last effort Gargoyles a multiple award-winner as well as a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award.
With that in mind, it should come as no surprise that The Order of Good Cheer is a fine novel. But Gaston surpasses himself, intermingling two narratives with such aplomb and dissimilar cadence that one might suspect they were the product of two separate individuals.
Gaston also proves himself a maestro of physical atmosphere, conjuring up two distinct worlds that threaten collapse and possible apocalypse at any moment. Placed against such backdrops, his characters shine in all their flawed glory, choosing to celebrate the moment because that’s all that may be left to them.
The Order of Good Cheer is a feast of nuanced writing, blessed with one of those rare endings that are absolutely perfect. Gaston has crafted a bittersweet ode to friendship, loss, and near-hopelessness that lingers in the mind long after the story has come to a close, like the last few minutes of a get-together when the wine has finally settled in the stomach, the anecdotes are all told, and all that remains is comfortable silence.