To the Edge of the Sea

By (author): Anne McDonald

Alex was in harmony with the water. He taught himself to swim, and liked working the sea off Prince Edward Island as his fisherman father did, but he always yearned for something more. His brother Reggie despised it all – the water that brought death, the seasickness, and he needed to breathe the air of farms. Reggie yearned for escape. Mercy Coles lived on the same island as Alex and Reggie, but lived in Charlottetown’s society and yearned for experience.

All three would get their wish, but coincidence would shape those wishes in profound ways. Alex would find himself on a circus trapeze fated to meet the Niagara Falls tightrope artist, Farini. Alex would join the farmers’ protests against the tax collectors, and battle the demons of guilt in the supposed death of his brother. Mercy would find herself landlocked on John A. Macdonald’s hard-drinking and dancing campaign to sell confederation statutes, attracted to his power while thinking him the ugliest man in Canada.

Anne McDonald weaves a series of spells that pull this beautifully written novel through a tightly woven script. Rich in tone and textured for a very rewarding reading experience, To the Edge of the Sea combines great storytelling with polished literary control.

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Anne McDonald

Anne McDonald has been writing for sixteen years and her work has appeared in The Society and Descant and has been broadcast on CBC Radio. The Coincidence of Water and Air (original title of To the Edge of the Sea) was First Alternate for the John V. Hicks fiction manuscript award and she was keynote speaker at the Sage Hill Teen Writing Experience in 2010.


Resource links June 2013 (Vol 18, #5)

To the Edge of the Sea follows the lives of three main characters whose independ¬ent quests ex¬plore the rites of passage and the human condition in depth. Alex and Reggie are brothers who live in PEI during the Confederation talks. Alex loves the sea, while Reggie hates it.

Alex lives to explore life beyond PEI and his fishing heritage, while Reggie’s greatest desire is to leave the seaside and his father’s fishing boat for the red fields of PEI and farm life. Mercy is a visitor to PEI whose family is fol¬lowing Sir John A MacDonald on the political trail to bring about confederation. Mercy ex¬plores her coming of age sexuality as a young woman of the 1860s who is admired by and who admires Sir John A MacDonald.

The story of each of the three characters is painted by their feelings of isolation and their desires to break away from their lives and to embrace new and untried things. Alex joins the circus and ends up crossing Niagara Falls on a tight rope. Reggie moves from the seaside to the land and attempts to find peace in farm¬ing, but is drawn to the water and must leam to handle his fear of it by learning to swim and conquering it. Mercy must follow her family, but soon becomes enamoured with the legen-dary father of Confederation and seeks to find her own identity as a woman rather than as a daughter.

His is a cerebral novel which requires much thought and inquiry and is not intended as a recreational read, but rather as a literary study. The problem with this novel is that the reader often struggles to understand and be¬come involved in the quests of its characters. It is easy to lose sight of the messages in the novel because it requires so much analysis. Definitely not light reading nor suited to a young adult audience. The historical context is rather overwhelming if the reader does not have a grasp on the time period.

Recommended only for senior literature study or adult reading. — Sharon Armstrong

Thematic Links: Prince Edward Island — History; Confederation — Canada

Saskatoon StarPhoenix – September 2011

Regina writer Anne McDonald leans on memories of her childhood summers on Prince Edward Island in her first novel, To the Edge of the Sea. In it, she makes fiction of the actual lives of people both close to, and not at all associated with, the negotiations in Charlottetown, Quebec City and Kingston to forge a confederation of what would become the provinces of Canada.

McDonald follows the lives of two brothers. Reggie and Alex, and Mercy Coles, all young adults, from mid-June 1864 to early November of the same year, as John A. MacDonald, George Brown and others from Upper and Lower Canada come first to Charlottetown to try to entice the colony into confederation.

The high-born Mercy from a politically powerful island family is intelligent, pretty and 26 and eager to do something with her life. That she’s 26 and not married in 1864 bespeaks her restlessness. She also has, what the psychobabble of today would call father issues. She’s not always sure that the man with whom she had such a happy childhood now has a sure grasp on his life and sanity.

Maybe that’s why of all the powerful men flowing lavishly around her, between meetings, and at receptions and balls, Mercy finds herself increasingly attracted to the widowed and much older John A., affectionately called by his sisters “the ugliest man in Canada.”
And MacDonald, negotiating furiously and drinking hard to keep up, finds himself strangely drawn to this attractive daughter of one of his colleagues.

Meanwhile, another kind of political wrangling is taking place under these people’s feet. In terms of family politics, brothers Reggie and Alex, sons of a fisherman, are fiercely at odds with their father’s plans.
Alex, the second son and the one who loves the sea, walks away from home to join the circus. Yes, it’s a cliche, but someone has to do it. He’s utterly entranced by tightrope walking, so much so that he leaves his family without a thought, follows the circus all over Quebec, and ends up at Niagara Falls, watching the great Farini prepare for his next amazing stunt. Alex wants it all.

On the other hand, Reggie, the eldest son, loathes life on the sea, is made physically ill by it, and wants to be a farmer. He defies his lather, already bereft of a son, and joins his farmer uncles as they gather to march in defiance of their landlords who bleed off their profits. Here are politics at a local and even violent level.
McDonald is wise enough not to think she’ll give us any new historical insights on the Charlottetown talks of 1864 or the complicated man who became our first prime minister. Her strength lies in imagining three young people with vastly different ambitions at a crucial time in Canada’s history And that history is nearly incidental to all their desires. What excites McDonald, and what she conveys, is the sensual excitement these people feel when they touch something they love.

She may be falling in love, but it’s the rain falling on Mercy’s bare head one night as she marches with the people that thrills her. Reggie loves the feel of the red Prince Edward Island earth and Alex loves the feel of air, how he can train himself to move through it, even lean against it. Whatever their politics — national, local or family — these are elemental people and McDonald has found what they’re made of and what they need to hold to. — Bill Robertson


  • Saskatchewan Book Award for First Book 2011, Winner
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    160 Pages
    8.5in * 5.5in * .5in


    March 31, 2011


    Thistledown Press



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    FICTION / Historical / General

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