While George Stewart provides the narrative and the point of view in this novel, Jerome Martell is by far the novel’s strongest character. The illegitimate son of a cook in a New Brunswick lumber camp who is murdered by one of the men, Jerome is forced at the age of ten to flee for his life in a small canoe. The image of Jerome floating down the river in the darkness of night away from his primitive origins and toward his ultimate confrontation with truth is central to the meaning of the novel. His first stop of consequence is with the Martells, who name him and bring him up within a Christian tradition as their foster child.
He becomes a soldier during World War I, and his experiences overseas—the killing of eleven men with a bayonet, spending the night in a foxhole with the body of one of his victims, and his exposure to venereal disease—destroy his Christian faith. “He had come back from the war an agnostic, so full of guilt and so shocked by his experiences that he had been unable to live any longer with his foster parents.” He leaves Atlantic Canada for Quebec, working his way through McGill Medical School.
Jerome is described as “dumb, but . . . dangerous. He’s an idealist, and he has five times more energy than any normal man.... Everything he does is compulsive.... He explodes.” Jerome’s vitality, his “life force,” refuses “to be bounded, circumscribed or even judged” by normal social convention. People who do live conventional lives and come into his orbit are emotionally damaged or destroyed from the encounter. Nora Blackwell, the operating-room nurse who gives up her husband and follows Jerome to Europe, commits suicide. His foster parents are devastated when he rejects them along with his Christianity. On the other hand, his explosive energy is matched by the intuitive touch of a truly gifted healer. As a doctor, he brings miracles; as a man, he spreads emotional chaos.
When Jerome meets Catherine, he finds for the first time a...
(The entire section is 817 words.)