Rob Ritchie,
Orphans of Winter
(Seraphim, 2006)

In "Seven a Side," a song about an underdog hockey team, Rob Ritchie wrote "The game's like religion the passion's so strong / Where the rivers freeze early in winters so cold and so long." Years later, Ritchie links hockey and spiritual exploration in his luminous debut novel.

Hockey scout Stephen Gillis encounters Willie Skilleter, an eccentric, gregarious and unnerving old man with a scrapbook stuffed with clippings. Willie talks seemingly endlessly about ley lines, the religious aspects of hockey and how Gillis should be interested in recruiting Casey Bruford, one of the players on the team expected to lose. Gillis has his eye on a different player but leaves the rink abruptly when Willie seems to know too much about him. As far as Gillis is concerned, the encounter is over.

Of course, it isn't. Gillis finds himself linked to Willie, Casey, a First Nations anthropology professor named David Thompson, a wealthy telecommunications pioneer and an eclectic society called the Watch. Like dominoes in a line, one event sets off the next, heading toward a redeeming convergence that gives Gillis's life a new meaning.

Ritchie approaches his theme in a roundabout way initially, introducing a series of images: a boy headed to a shed for detention; a pair of hockey skates and a hockey stick; a wolf; a car wreck on a snowy icy highway. These images and others resonate throughout the novel. One of the most curious and striking elements is the character Casey Bruford. He is at the center around which the characters and events revolve, but the reader never encounters Bruford except remotely.

There are many lyrically descriptive passages in the narrative and at times, Ritchie's writing is reminiscent of Ray Bradbury's. The main characters are vividly drawn, and the pace is brisk. What is most remarkable is how Ritchie balances such disparate elements: spiritual and secular, emotional and rational, instinct and logic. It is not incongruous to elevate hockey to a spiritual level within the context of the story.

The plot occasionally gets away from Ritchie as it rockets toward its conclusion, but he does rein it in successfully. By the end, the reader is invested in Gillis, following him through his fall and rebirth.

In language that is in turns stark and rich, Orphans of Winter makes the case that each of us matters in some way, that we are connected and need to maintain those interdependent connections. With an original and intriguing story, Ritchie has demonstrated amply that he is a writer to watch.

review by
Donna Scanlon

15 December 2007

what's new