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When Alice Lay Down With Peter

by (author) Margaret Sweatman

Knopf Canada
Initial publish date
Oct 2002
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Oct 2002
    List Price

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When Alice Lay Down with Peter is a sweeping, magical novel that follows four generations of the McCormack family through more than a century of Canadian history, as it unfolds on the flood plains of southern Manitoba. The story of Alice and Peter McCormack and their progeny is a glorious, witty, and intimate epic that truly reminds us that life stories not only include the details of the past, but also expand into the present and future, encompassing much more than the statistics of life and death would seem to admit. Narrated by Blondie McCormack -- Alice and Peter’s daughter, who has just died at the age of 109 -- When Alice Lay Down with Peter is a novel that rejoices in the inevitability of change, and in the hauntings that reward our choosing to remember our own history.

Blondie’s narrative begins before her own life does, in the late 1860s, when Alice falls in love with Peter in the Orkneys, just before he sails for a new life in the New World. Disguising herself as a man, Alice follows his route and joins the Métis buffalo hunt in southern Manitoba, where she finds both Peter and the life experience she needs. But the expansion of Canada has wrought havoc on the buffalo population, and the Métis have had their work and their land cut out from under them. A way of life is dying, just as Alice and Peter are beginning their life together.

When Alice lays down with Peter, the ground shakes, the sky opens up, and lightning strikes the lovers, wrapped around each other under the open sky. At that moment, they both know that Alice has become pregnant with their child. But Alice continues her disguise, and joins Peter in fighting alongside Louis Riel and the Métis, against efforts to bring the west into the Dominion. She even participates in the political execution of Riel’s foe Thomas Scott, and is haunted by his ghost for the rest of her days. But as their baby comes closer to term, Alice and Peter realize the need to create a home, and it is on their new property near St. Norbert that Blondie, our narrator, is born.

On this piece of land, the story of Alice and Peter continues, and repeats itself through the coming generations. Blondie grows into a young woman and falls in love with Eli, a young buffalo hunter who eventually is forced to leave her when changes to his life and land become too heavy a weight to bear. Unlike her mother, Blondie reacts against her pain by going into seclusion, and studying only topics foreign to her surroundings. But when Eli returns, Blondie escapes her self-imposed isolation to take part in the Boer War, dressed as a young soldier. It is only on her return that they truly find each other again, and their lightning-fused reunion brings about the conception of their daughter, Helen.

And in that remarkable way that every generation can be seen as an exercise in repetition with variation, the McCormack women continue to find their own ways in the world and find, out there, the means of rejoining their family’s story. The too-beautiful Helen marries rich, but escapes her husband to live as a tramp on the rails and ends up fighting in the Spanish Civil War. Helen’s daughter Dianna trains as a lawyer, but gives it up to pour her passion and rebellion into botanical illustration and political protest. Each woman follows a very different path away from the family, but finds that the forces connecting them to home are too strong for any outside events to break.

Just as When Alice Lay Down with Peter is a story of a family, it is a story of a particular place over time. Margaret Sweatman’s characters are never separate from the story of the land itself, or from the natural and political events that work away at its edges. The history of the McCormacks is a history of life on the land: of bountiful crops and devastating floods, the renewal of spring and the death that marks each fall. It is in the connection between the place and its inhabitants that we find the deceptively simple meaning of “home.” And it is to this conjoining of histories that Sweatman brings the lightning spark of her imagination, and out of which this wonderful novel has been born.

About the author

Margaret Sweatman is a novelist, playwright, and singer-lyricist. She is the author of four previously published novels, Fox, Sam & Angie, When Alice Lay Down With Peter, and The Players, for which she has won the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize, the Margaret Laurence Award for Fiction, the Sunburst Award for Canadian Literature of the Fantastic, the Carol Shields Winnipeg Award, and the McNally Robinson Book of the Year.

Sweatman's plays have been produced by Prairie Theatre Exchange, Popular Theatre Alliance, and the Guelph Spring Festival. She has performed with her own Broken Songs Band and with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra, and the National Academy Orchestra. With her husband, composer Glenn Buhr, Sweatman won a 2006 Genie Award for Best Song in Canadian Film.

Margaret Sweatman's profile page


  • Winner, Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize

Excerpt: When Alice Lay Down With Peter (by (author) Margaret Sweatman)

Chapter One

These are my beginnings.

Imagine heat. In the coupled loins of Alice (wearing wool pants and a heavy flannel shirt and, strangest of all, leather chaps, for he’d taken her while they chased a herd of thirsty cattle east from Turtle Mountain to the Pembina hills) and her skinny, ardent husband, Peter. Hot as liquor, the juice that made me, on the night of August’s showering meteors in a warm wind sweet with sage. They were alone under cowboy stars beside the embers of a campfire, laughing in their lovemaking. The most successful practical jokers in all the colony. Their britches whispered as leaves in the breeze when they rustled and rubbed together. He thrust inside her and she wrapped her chaps around him and drew her knees up to his shoulders while the seed ran down, itching and hot. A woman in her precarious circumstance must interrupt at all costs and they were careful to spill, laughing. My mum and dad, in God’s House of Lords, members of the opposition.

They’d been travelling with a half-dozen men, a sad bunch of Métis buffalo hunters reduced to driving cattle for a retired Hudson’s Bay Company officer. It had been a long month for them, feigning manly indifference to each other’s earthy scent under the duress of my mother’s disguise. It made them hot. And a little silly. And when the men had left them alone that night with instructions to return for the stragglers, a cow and her calf that had been separated from the herd, they both shrugged and spat and threw down their bedrolls, grunting acquiescence.

A lovely night, the stars above. Hunger from a long fast, constant temptation and the arousal, perhaps you know of it, that comes from watching a lover’s freedom or solitude, the aphrodisiac of the lover’s face averted, the part that leaves you out.

She thought he’d come. Their catechism had reached that stage of exchange where one becomes another, pulse and tide for tide and pulse. Her own juice she mistook for his. She thought he’d spilled; she was safely playing on the shores of pleasure. She was attuned to her rhythms and knew she was ripe. So when she looked above his pounding shoulder and saw the lurid purple of the thunderhead ink the half-moon, cover it, while Dad fought for an end to his need, pounding the walls of his beloved, seeking an end, when she saw the leader stroke of lightning, a brilliant ionized path stark white against the deep purple sky and after a split second another stroke and it was the great intake of breath, dry as rage and bright as a path of quicksilver, she knew, she knew. The next stroke made their hair stand on end, my father’s hair longer and scruffier than my mother’s theatrical boy’s bob. Twenty-five thousand volts.

My father was a compassionate man who would never deliberately inflict his needs upon his beloved wife, but I can’t say for certain that he would have had the discipline necessary to stop himself before the fact that magic night. Anyone with the imagination to put themselves in his boots at that moment will forgive him the indiscretion of the fiercest ejaculation by a white man in the brief history of Rupert’s Land. And though my mother was receptive, the voltage and the heat fired the seed, knocked her unconscious. She didn’t stand a chance. They woke up fourteen hours later, still coupled, surrounded by hailstones the size of turtle eggs, black and blue but happy. They smiled roguishly, knowing, and with muddy fingers combed each other’s sizzled hair. It was two o’clock on the first afternoon of my life as an embryo. My father withdrew from my mother slowly, very slowly, flesh welded to flesh, raw.

They would be satisfied for nearly a month. They helped each other stand and looked out at the trees, the leaves pounded by the hail. The light was white as the inside of an oxygen tent. They buttoned their trousers. Horses gone. Cow and calf vanished. They hobbled and sucked hailstones along the old trail marked by the wooden wheels of Red River carts. They held hands. They were glad I’d been tipped into the world, off a thundercloud like a huge tarnished tray, tipped like caviar into my mother’s womb. And scorched there, the seed of a jack pine. The catalyst, a stroke of lightning.


They had met by accident in the stark sun of the Orkney island of Hoy, where she sat reading and he sat darning his socks. My mother had been the only female theology student at the University of Glasgow, establishing what was to become a family tradition of studying passionately all things extraneous to survival. Alice had been raised a Wesleyan, and had bred her faith on a meagre diet of duty and intellect. She’d been preparing for an examination on the methods of salvation when a sudden sneeze filled her with a need to smell the most northern sea. Telling her astonished family and her sceptical theologians that she was in a struggle with spiritual dryness, she put her books in a carpet bag, promised everyone that she would heal herself and return, and left for Orkney, the most northern place she could then imagine.

My father-to-be was a tenant farmer from Hoy. Sick of mud and poverty, he was yearning to join up with the Hudson’s Bay Company and jump aboard a ship headed for the New World. Sailing west sailing west, to prairie lands sunkissed and blest, the crofter’s trail to happiness. He and Alice sat down beside one another, total strangers, on a hill with a view of the sea. They’d arrived there at the same moment, obviously expecting to be alone, and had hesitated before shyly nodding hello and settling on the warm rock side by each, as if they’d planned it. He reached into his pocket and brought forth a darning needle and a pair of woollen socks, and began to sew. Strangely embarrassed, Alice quickly drew St. Augustine’s Confessions from her bag and pretended to read. She was wearing a black Methodist gown. Her black-laced boots were spread pigeon-toed, careless and ready. She noticed that he had a freckled complexion, her favourite kind of skin. Then he began to talk in a voice like the wind on the water, his words arriving as if out of nowhere. His Adam’s apple floated on his freckled throat. He said there was a land without landlords just across the ocean, a green and verdant place where a man could be free from tyranny, free from history itself. Rivers, he said, long and wild rivers run through the forests, into the great Hudson Bay, in a country where nobody can own you. I’m joining up, he said. The Hudson’s Bay Company can take me there, but then I’m going out on my own and never work for any man, never be owned by anybody, not ever again. Fish, hunt, live free, he said, vigorously stitching his socks.

Editorial Reviews

“This is the best novel on the fall list -- a historical saga spanning a century with compelling characters and poetic imagery.... the landscape encompasses feminine longing and fragility in Sweatman’s deft hands. Her prose sweeps over the big prairie sky, lingering over the rolling hills, taking its time.” -- Calgary Herald

When Alice Lay Down With Peter is a galloping family epic that’s reined in, but not tamed, by a wry humour. Sweatman teases us, with a wink and a nudge, into going along with her tall tales, and we do go along, because the details she gives root us compellingly in time and place. Sweatman is so obviously in love with the larger-than-life landscape of this novel that we can’t help but fall in love along with her. This is a rollicking, erotic, magical read.” -- Gail Anderson-Dargatz

When Alice Lay Down With Peter is an intricate love letter to the flood plain of southern Manitoba, a landscape that Margaret Sweatman convincingly crafts as the centre of the world. An uncommon family saga, it is also, at times, a riotously funny account of a radical, roistering and shocking prairie history. Margaret Sweatman’s writing is both muscular and musical. In her richly layered evocations of worlds social, political, natural and supernatural, the reader can never slip into anything like complacency. This is a streaking comet of a novel and I really do think it’s extraordinary.” -- Bill Richardson

“Stark acts and facts of history are lovingly embroidered by Sweatman’s gift for discription: winter days are ‘as crisp and short and dark as an eighth note’; a stilted dinner consists of ‘steamed curiosity and fried frustration.’ When Alice Lay Down With Peter is an exuberant, generous, magical retelling of Canadian history.” -- Quill and Quire
"Sweatman's style is loose and poetic. Her elliptical dance through history is reminiscent of Jane Urquhart's, in The Whirlpool and Away. Novelists have often told us more about our shared past than historians: think Tolstoy, Dickens or Balzac. Overwhelmed by our vast geography, Canadian fiction writers have been slow to mine the rich bedrock of Canadian history. But writers such as Sweatman, Urquhart, Audrey Thomas and Fred Stenson are finally rescuing our past from the "boring" academic ghetto to which it was consigned. They bring it alive by presenting it as a shimmering tapestry of individual stories rather than a linear trudge through political and economic progress." -- Charlotte Gray, National Post (September 29, 2001)

When Alice Lay Down With Peter is all over the historical and geographical map, an exuberant romp through history which…covers all bases and leaves no stone unturned. …It is quite a journey, good-humoured, sad, eventful and originally conceived, a riotous excursion….Sweatman…is an original writer whose deft handling of history, although flamboyant, can be effective…her characters are well described…..Sweatman’s tour through history is witty, humane and full of surprises, a lament for human folly and a salute to human resilience.” -- London Free Press

“This is the sort of book Larry McMurtry might write if he had a taller talent and deeper sensitivity….What a relief to find a novel of serious intent utilizing a narrative that really zips along.” -- George Fetherling, Vancouver Sun

“Sweatman’s writing graciously flows from generation to generation carrying with it the phrases and habits of ancestors. There are passages tinged with magic…Sweatman allows the landscape to come alive….[L]eaves the reader feeling that this story is continuing outside the confines of thie novel.” -- Books in Canada (01 Jan 02)

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