The novel begins with John Wellfleet, a resident of an old people’s compound, receiving a telephone call from a young man, Andre Gervais. The year is 2039, fifty years after a nuclear holocaust, known as the Destructions, has ended civilization, leaving only a few survivors. Gervais has discovered an old box in the ruins of Montreal. The box is full of papers and tapes of the Wellfleet family. Although Gervais knows that the repressive government, known as the Bureaucracy, would prohibit such an act, he wants John to come to the city to look at the box. When John recovers from the shock of finding records of a past long since dead and gone, he agrees to reconstruct the family history. That history, as told through John, or narrated directly from the journals, letters, and tapes of members of the family, constitutes Hugh MacLennan’s novel.
The first story that John reconstructs is that of Timothy Wellfleet, a well-known television journalist during the 1960’s. His speciality is exposing fools and liars. He prides himself on being aware of current events, but he misses the whole point of the Front de Liberation de Quebec (FLQ) movement while preoccupied with the Vietnam War. In 1970, the eminent historian Conrad Dehmel goes on Timothy’s program in order to explain the dangers inherent in the FLQ and the October Crisis of 1970, precipitated by the kidnaping of two public figures. Timothy has, however, obtained some information from a student radical to the effect that Conrad was once a Nazi Party member and a member of the Gestapo. Seizing the opportunity for sensationalism, Timothy accuses Conrad of these associations in the middle of the show. Conrad stalks off the set and is soon afterward assassinated by a man whose entire family has been wiped out in a Nazi death camp.
Timothy does not find out until after the show that his stepmother was married to Conrad. He also finds out later that Conrad joined the Gestapo to save the lives of his Jewish fiancee and her father, a distinguished psychiatrist. Conrad was also a member of the group plotting to kill Adolf Hitler. In the end, all of his covert efforts against the Nazis resulted in failure. His Jewish fiancee and her father were killed in a concentration camp, and Conrad himself narrowly...
(The entire section is 929 words.)