Patterson House by Jane Cawthorne

Patterson House, standing isolated on the shore of Lake Ontario outside of Toronto in the early 1900s, is haunted. The ghost of William Patterson, the first owner and builder of the Patterson empire walks its halls but is powerless to interact with its current resident, his great-grandaughter Alden. You see, William hung himself upstairs in one of the maid’s bedrooms, a maid that was carrying his child, so you get an idea of the philanderer that William Patterson was.

“Pattersons are flagrant, passionate, careless, extravagant. They are also unlucky, possibly cursed, a judgement that has stuck to them since William Patterson made his final unfortunate choice. But the real curse on the family is a fondness for alcohol.”

His son Rogers, Alden’s father was no better, mismanaging the family business (and its fortunes) and then turning to drink after both his sons failed to return home from WWI.

This is why Alden is heavily involved with the temperance movement (the WCTU, much to her father’s chagrin), and when we first meet her in the spring of 1916, she is on her way to a march in downtown Toronto. Getting lost, she accidentally enters “The Ward” a marginalized part of the city and comes across a young girl going through rubbish in the street, looking for firewood and anything else of value when a newborn is discovered. Not knowing what to do, Alden takes the child to the police, who are too preoccupied with the temperance march riot. Taking it to the hospital, the child (a girl) is declared fit, so the hospital cannot admit her. Orphanages are full. It is wartime. Frustrated, Alden takes her home until she can decide what to do. Her father tells her that she must raise the child and further she shall be called Constance: “let it be a constant reminder to you of your duty.” This is not what Alden wanted to do with her life, but her father has spoken. She has few other choices in the matter.

The ensuing years could well be entitled “The Fall of the House of Patterson” as Alden, the last living Patterson, and her daughter Constance live through one trial after another with the helpless ghost of her grandfather observing all (who acts as a type of “between scenes” narrator). Toronto grows and spreads, the venerable house no longer solitary, but surrounded by streets and smaller houses. Alden tries to maintain a semblance of normalcy, but to keep Patterson House, she needs to take in boarders. And it is she and Constance that need to clean and cook for them, as she cannot afford staff. There is also John Hunt the former gardener, who has returned home scarred visibly and emotionally from the Great War. He is the sole enduring boarder, doing handyman’s work in exchange for his room and board. Then an odd stranger, Mr. Carling Grant appears, looking for room and board.

What I enjoyed most about reading Patterson House was that the story was starkly realistic, mirroring the times and the gradual decline of the house itself, as it takes more money than Alden has to maintain it properly, particularly the roof. Alden is forbearing and determined to keep the house and make a young lady of Constance in spite of her tomboyish ways. What didn’t please me (and may well offend some readers) was Ms. Cawthorne’s portrayal of the antagonist, Mr. Grant, as morbidly obese. Hence, he is the stereotypical glutton, smelly and unkempt. This gets to be a little too much after some time, even for a character that is overbearing, obnoxious, and misogynistic. His issues with weight needn’t be considered a negative addition to his other undesirable qualities.

Ms. Cawthorne’s dialogue is brief, never flowery, and doesn’t get in the way of the story, which is decidedly feminist, but it was definitely a time when women were expected to marry and bear children and little else. Alden and Constance try to escape this predetermined course, and due to the times, they end up in situations where no woman should ever find themselves. Patterson House is a substantial historical fiction read.

Jane Cawthorne writes about women in moments of crises and transformation. Her short stories and essays have appeared in newspapers, magazines, literary journals, scholarly journals and anthologies. Her debut novel, Patterson House, is set in Toronto, her birthplace, and a city dear to her even when she lives elsewhere. She lives in Victoria, BC.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Inanna Poetry & Fiction Series (Sept. 27 2022)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 350 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 177133939X
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1771339391

Founding Editor -- Website

James M. Fisher is the Founding Editor of The Miramichi Reader. He began TMR in 2015, realizing that there was a genuine need for more book reviews of Canadian literature. It has since become Canada’s best-regarded source for the finest in new literary releases. James has been interviewed about TMR on CBC Radio and other media sites. He works as a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) Technologist and lives in Miramichi, New Brunswick with his wife Diane, their tabby cat Eddie, and Buster the Red Merle Border Collie.