Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 267
Although Brian O’Connal is, at times, too mature for his age, he is usually depicted quite realistically. The boy is not only sensitive but also determined and tenacious. Furthermore, his quest is, if somewhat too programatically controlled by the author, a moving account of a boy’s gradual steps toward maturity and insight. W. O. Mitchell has carefully linked the boy’s perception to the dimensions of the small prairie town in which he lives. By making the boy learn about his world through the local people, the typical animals, and the natural forces of the prairies, the author is capable of gradually moving the boy’s eyes and understanding from the immediate events in the town to the distant horizon, thereby giving a convincing portrayal of growth and maturation.
Many of the novel’s other characters are not as successfully drawn. Mrs. Abercrombie is an all-too-extreme and all-too-recognizable hypocrite. Mr. Powelly, too, is a zealot bordering on caricature. Regrettably, even the Ben family borders on a stereotype. The father is the classic ne’er-do-well of the small town, and young Ben functions much too obviously as an alter ego for Brian. At times, then, the characters are used didactically, not naturally: The writer clearly wants to suggest a moral rather than tell a tale. Since the book is, in part, a children’s story focusing on the sensibility of a young boy under the age of twelve, the exaggeration may be forgiven. Unfortunately, the stereotypical presentation of many of the characters cannot be completely forgotten by the mature reader, and the novel therefore suffers slightly.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 808
Brian Sean MacMurray O’Connal
Brian Sean MacMurray O’Connal, who ages from four to eleven during the course of the story. A slight, lean, dark “black Scotch” boy, Brian is imaginative and always inquisitive about the rhythms of nature that he witnesses on the sweeping, beckoning, and now drought-ridden Saskatchewan prairie where he lives. By the age of eleven, Brian has experienced the deaths both of cherished pets and of beloved members of his close family, making him mature beyond his years. Always sensitive to the relentless patterns of birth and death around him, Brian perceives aspects of life about which his contemporaries Forbsie Hoffman and Artie Sherry comprehend little. Brian’s sturdy independence makes his mother heartsick, but his independence and his extraordinary visionary capacity protect him somewhat from the harsh emotional blows he is dealt so early.
Gerald O’Connal, Maggie’s large, auburn-haired husband, Brian and Bobby’s father, and the town druggist. A quiet, serious man, as befits his respectable position in the town, Gerald is also gentle and sensitive. It is Gerald who solves the conflict between Brian and his grandmother over Brian’s puppy Jappy, who shares Brian’s wonder and respects his sorrow over the birth and death of a baby pigeon, who quietly finances his impoverished brother Sean’s irrigation project, and who is his wife’s model of the kind of person she wants their sons to be. Always concerned for others, he downplays persistent signs of his own ill health and dies suddenly at the age of forty-three of gall bladder disease.
Maggie MacMurray O’Connal
Maggie MacMurray O’Connal, a small, dark, pretty, and intense woman. She loves and admires her husband and cares fiercely about her sons, instilling in them a desire to be strong, worthy, and successful. Ordinarily a person who does not express her emotions, she nevertheless makes them evident on such occasions as the near death of infant Bobby and in her dignified but forceful defense of Brian to his sadistic teacher Miss Macdonald. Although she is devastated by her husband’s death, her love and ambition for her sons is undiminished.
Margaret (Maggie) Biggart MacMurray
Margaret (Maggie) Biggart MacMurray, Maggie O’Connal’s mother. Traveling west to homestead with her husband John in 1885, she led the pioneer’s hard, challenging life, which she loved, and she delights still to tell her grandchildren about the old days. Now elderly, lame, and increasingly frail, she lives with her daughter’s family. At first, she appears an authoritative figure to the small Brian. After Gerald’s death, however, a mutual sympathy grows between grandmother and grandson; each appreciates the other’s independence and affinity for the natural world. At eighty-two years of age, she dies of pneumonia, seeking the outdoor air at the last.
Sean O’Connal, Gerald’s brother and his senior by fifteen years. A huge, profane redhead, never married, Sean loves his brother and his brother’s family tenderly, having seen to Gerald’s upbringing and education himself. A grain farmer devastated and embittered by the drought of the 1930’s, Sean is a man of the future, vainly advocating conservationist plowing, irrigation, and farming methods. After Gerald’s death, he encourages Brian’s growing interest in agricultural engineering, assuring the boy’s future.
Young Ben, the half-wild, wholly unchecked son of the reprobate Old Ben, but really a true child of nature, a noble savage. The shock-haired, gray-eyed, broad-cheeked Young Ben resists all efforts, both sympathetic and vengeful, to tame and educate him, preferring his natural habitat, the broad Saskatchewan prairie. He shares with Brian a compassion for helpless creatures, and he maintains an almost wordless, close, protective relationship with Brian. Young Ben embodies a freedom of spirit that Brian perceives but cannot attain.
Mr. Digby, the elementary school principal, weathered-looking, with a shock of fair hair, very blue eyes, and threadbare clothing. Though improvident, Mr. Digby is a man of compassion and lively intellect, always doing his best to combat the small town’s narrowness and bigotry. He releases Young Ben from school, quietly financing the boy’s few necessities after Old Ben is jailed, imperiling his own job in the process. He understands the needs of both his students and the many adults to whom he lends a sympathetic ear. Up to now a contented bachelor, he comes to love Ruth Thompson as a kindred spirit as well as a desirable woman.
Ruth Thompson, a dramatically dark-haired and dark-eyed teacher at Digby’s school. As compassionate as Digby, she takes overt action against injustice more readily than he does and vanquishes the town bully Mrs. Abercrombie. Breaking for the second time an engagement to the sardonic yet humane town doctor Peter Svarich, she will marry Digby instead.