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Fiction Small Town & Rural

The Retreat

by (author) David Bergen

McClelland & Stewart
Initial publish date
Jun 2009
Small Town & Rural, Native American & Aboriginal, Literary
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Jun 2009
    List Price

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Bestselling novelist David Bergen follows his Scotiabank Giller Prize—winning The Time in Between with a haunting novel about the clash of generations — and cultures.
In 1973, outside of Kenora, Ontario, Raymond Seymour, an eighteen-year-old Ojibway boy, is taken by a local policeman to a remote island and left for dead.

A year later, the Byrd family arrives in Kenora. They have come to stay at “the Retreat,” a commune run by the self-styled guru Doctor Amos. The Doctor is an enigmatic man who spouts bewildering truisms, and who bathes naked every morning in the pond at the edge of the Retreat while young Everett Byrd watches from the bushes. Lizzy, the eldest of the Byrd children, cares for her younger brothers Fish and William, and longs for what she cannot find at the Retreat. When Lizzy meets Raymond, everything changes, and Lizzy comes to understand the real difference between Raymond’s world and her own. A tragedy and a love story, the novel moves towards a conclusion that is both astonishing and heartbreaking.

Set during the summer of the Ojibway occupation of Anicinabe Park in Kenora, The Retreat is a finely nuanced, deeply felt novel that tells the story of the complicated love between a white girl and a native boy, and of a family on the verge of splintering forever. It is also a story of the bond between two brothers who were separated in childhood, and whose lives and fates intertwine ten years later.

A brilliant portrait of a time and a place, The Retreat confirms Bergen’s reputation as one of the country’s most gifted and compelling writers.

About the author

DAVID BERGEN is an award-winning author of seven previous novels and a collection of short stories. A Year Of Lesser was a New York Times Notable Book, and The Case of Lena S. was a finalist for the Governor General's Award for Fiction. In 2005, Bergen won the Giller Prize for The Time in Between. His sixth novel, The Matter With Morris, was shortlisted for the Giller Prize in 2010, won the Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award and the Margaret Laurence Award for Fiction, and was shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The Age Of Hope was a #1 bestseller and a finalist for Canada Reads 2013. Bergen lives with his family in Winnipeg.

David Bergen's profile page


  • Winner, McNally Robinson Book of the Year
  • Winner, Margaret Laurence Award for Fiction
  • Nominated, Scotiabank Giller Prize

Excerpt: The Retreat (by (author) David Bergen)

In 1964, at the age of ten, Nelson Seymour was taken from his grandmother’s house on the reserve near Kenora and placed with a Mennonite family in a small town called Lesser, south of Winnipeg. A white man and a white woman came to the reserve in a blue Ford Galaxy looking for two brothers, Raymond and Nelson, but Nelson was the only one home with his grandmother at the time. He was taken immediately. His grandmother tried to stop them but her pleas were ineffectual. The man was wearing a fedora and he took it off and held it at his hip and he said, “Where is the other boy, Raymond?” The grandmother looked at the floor. Then she lied and said that he was away, up north with his father. The man in the fedora looked around at the bicycles in the yard and the old swing. It was autumn and the leaves were gone from the trees and the wind was sharp and cold. The man looked down at a piece of paper that he held in his hand. “It says here that Raymond Seymour has been attending school. How is that?”

The grandmother turned her gaze to the sky and shrugged and said that the school people were wrong. The man looked at Nelson. “Your brother, Raymond, where is he?”

Nelson glanced at his grandmother, who regarded him and nodded. Nelson imitated her nod, and then began to cry. The man put his hat on and then turned away and walked out towards the car with a weeping Nelson, while the woman gathered up a few of his things. The grandmother called out that Nelson was hers and where were they going with him, but there was no answer.

Later that night, Raymond was back home and his grandmother told him that the government folks had taken Nelson, and she said that she didn’t know when he was coming back. She didn’t know where he was going, maybe to live with a white family because this is what had happened to Elijah Prince a month earlier. She said that Nelson was strong, stronger than Raymond. Her hands were folded on the table and they were shaking. The next morning she brought Raymond to stay with his aunt Donna, off the reserve about five miles away. Raymond remained there for two months. He did not attend school any more that fall, and no questions were asked, and it would be years later that he’d learn that he should have been taken with his brother, and might have been if the authorities had decided to come back for him.

Within the first month at his new home, Nelson ran away three times, once almost making it back to Kenora before the police picked him up. Another time, in the middle of January, his adoptive father found him walking on Highway 59, just outside Île des Chênes. Driving back to Lesser, his new father said that Nelson should start appreciating what he’d been given. “You have a mother and father who love you, you have a wonderful home, clothes, food, you have three sisters who would do anything for you. Your name is Nelson Koop, you’re my son now and I’m your father. No one’s going to hurt you. You understand that?”

It had snowed the day before, and the fields were blown over and everywhere there was a pure whiteness that was blinding in the sun. Nelson looked out the passenger window and studied the fields and imagined walking out into the emptiness. After this last escape he did not run again, though he often thought of it. At the beginning of the year he’d been placed in grade five and he’d done very poorly. Halfway through the term, he was sent down to grade four where the boys made fun of him, though they stayed away from him because he was known for having quick, hard fists. On the first day of school a boy named Benjamin Senkiew had hit him and given him a bloody nose. The following day, passing by Senkiew in the hallway, Nelson attacked him and pummelled his face until he was pulled away by the gym teacher. He was suspended for a week and returned to find that he was neither taunted nor talked to and he grew accustomed to the silence and the grudging respect and the hatred that surrounded him.

The fall he turned fourteen he joined the football team and quickly became known for his ruthlessness and his disregard for his own body. He came to be accepted, and for a time he went out with Glenda Ratzlaff, a tall, thin girl, but her father disapproved, and so all he was left with was the recollection of her soft hands sliding up inside his T- shirt as they stood in the cold night behind the curling rink.

As the years passed he relinquished the memories of who he was and where he had come from, though there were times, in the middle of the night, when he woke from a dream in which someone was calling him by the wrong name, and he would sit up and say, “My name is Nelson Seymour.”

Editorial Reviews

“Bergen’s characters move and breathe, demonstrating the delicate balance between hope and despair, salvation and damnation.”
Toronto Star

“David Bergen is a master of taut, spare prose that’s both erotic and hypnotic. . . .”
— Miriam Toews

“Bergen’s novels are marvels of spare prose and weighty emotion.”
Saturday Night

“The writing of Winnipeg's David Bergen, who won a host of prizes including the Giller for his last novel, The Time in Between, sometimes gets compared to that of Cormac McCarthy; taut, psychological fiction that floats just above a kind of menacing nihilism. His new novel, The Retreat, keeps to the pattern.”
Winnipeg Free Press

“Paired with chirping crickets and a porch-side perch, the finely wrought prose and bucolic setting make for a perfect early-fall-evening companion.”
Toronto Life
“The Giller Prize–winner’s latest book is a gripping tale that leaves the reader heavy-hearted yet driven to turn the page.”
Canadian Living

“Throughout the story, the spare writing lends an atmosphere of foreboding, even dread, that makes for compelling reading.”
Edmonton Journal.

The Retreat is a powerful and engrossing novel, further proof that the late-blooming Bergen is now one of Canada's very best writers.”
— Montreal Gazette

“…the novel speeds along in [Bergen’s] characteristically exquisite prose.”
The Walrus
“Bergen excels at creating dramatic scenes of survival. . . . A meaningful and significant work.”
Globe and Mail

“Bergen makes every word count.”
Ottawa Citizen

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