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Fiction Historical


by (author) Gwen Tuinman

Random House of Canada
Initial publish date
May 2024
Historical, Family Life, Action & Adventure
  • Hardback

    Publish Date
    May 2024
    List Price

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Brash, duplicitous women, murder and mayhem, and illicit love abound in this wild adventure for fans of Outlander and The Home for Unwanted Girls, announcing a major new talent in historical fiction.

Bytown, 1836: The lawless cesspool that will become the city of Ottawa is beginning to reek of more than just swamp water. Rife with squalor, corruption, and organized crime, class injustice divides the town more starkly than the canal that bisects it, cutting off its Irish poor—who are ready to fight back.

On a homestead in the woods near Bytown, a domestic drama is also reaching a fever pitch. Quiet, ungainly Mariah, her face scarred in a dog attack back home in Ireland, has been living on sufferance in her sister Biddy’s home since they sailed for a new life. She’s treated as the spinster aunt, a farmhand working alongside Biddy’s husband, Seamus. But the three of them are keeping a bitter secret: Mariah, in love with Seamus, is the mother of Thomas, the family’s oldest child. And she’s about to burst under the strain of making herself small.

While Mariah plots to claim her rightful place in the world, Thomas keeps secrets of his own. Eager to escape the roiling tensions at home, he’s apprenticed himself to a blacksmith in Bytown, but soon falls into trouble too big for him to handle. To save himself, he’s made a deal with the one man colder than the devil—Peter Aylen, leader of a powerful Irish rebel gang. As danger mounts, both for Thomas and for the town, there’s only one way for Mariah to save her son: by becoming the hero of her own story, facing her deepest fears with a determination she never knew she had.

About the author

Contributor Notes

GWEN TUINMAN is descended from Irish tenant farmers and English Quakers. Her storytelling influences include soul searching, an interest in bygone days, and the complexities of living a life. Fascinated by the landscape of human tenacity, she writes about women navigating the social restrictions of their era. Gwen lives with her husband on a small rural homestead in Ontario’s Kawartha Lakes region.

Excerpt: Unrest (by (author) Gwen Tuinman)


September 1836

My fear is a black dog crouched and snarling in the middle of a road. It follows me everywhere. So it’s been all my life. Menace lurks high and low in the snake pit known as Bytown. If money fell from the clouds tomorrow, I’d be on my way out of here as soon as I could fill my basket with the stuff.
Bytown’s no place for a son to learn about being a man—at least not a good man. Alas, it’s my boy, Thomas, I’m walking there to see, at the blacksmith shop where he apprentices for a German, Mr. Mueller. Thomas prefers the song of Mueller’s hammer against the anvil to the dull thwack of his da’s axe chopping white pine. With the first hairs sprouting from his chin, he fancies himself a man. Although he speaks too freely, the boy knows his own mind. In this way, he has surpassed me. Darkness began to lift soon after I left the homestead, but already the sun inches above the crimson tops of the maple groves. If I don’t reach Thomas before the forge is hot enough for working iron, he’ll be too busy to talk. Time is running out. Not even the tip of a cobbler’s nail jabbing at my right heel will slow my pace.
Four miles to go. My boots crunch dried leaves and pine needles against the forest floor and my mind drifts toward disheartening thoughts about Thomas’s future. His appetite for freedom and Bytown’s flurry of lawless mayhem have ensnared him. He forgets about his mother and looks restlessly to the horizon.
Geese honk overhead. Even they wish to fly far away.
Another sound rises so faintly from behind me that I nearly miss it. My shoulders tighten and for a few seconds I hold my breath until it resolves into hooves clomping an uneven rhythm against the dirt road. As the horse draws nearer, I recognize the underlying rattle of a cart.
Men are approaching.
“Keep walking, Mariah,” I whisper to myself. Dew wets the hem of my skirt when I veer from the road, and the leather soles of my boots slide down the grassy embankment so that I barely keep my balance. My knuckles turn white from squeezing the handle of the basket I’m carrying. The taunts of Diarmait Flynn and his sons travel across a decade and a half from behind their stone fence in County Cork to terrorize me anew.
As the cart begins to overtake me, my breathing quickens.
Through the tunnel formed by the brim of my bonnet, the horse’s whiskered muzzle comes into view. A glance downward reveals his limp. It’s plain to see he needs reshoeing.
The driver is a square-shouldered man with a hat pulled low on his forehead. He glances back at me for only a split second as the cart rolls past, but my chest constricts all the same. He resembles one of the Flynns.
Except for Seamus and Thomas, all men do.

Thoughts of my son push me onward.
Since he started boarding with the Muellers a year ago, Thomas has not come home. Today he must accept our invitation to return at least to share a meal with us. I wish for his homecoming so hard, it cannot be otherwise. The entire family—Seamus, my sister, Biddy, and their children—misses my son. But I miss him more than anyone. His lengthy absence makes it even more difficult to endure my sister’s resentments.
Her impatience is at the root of our undoing. On the afternoon of Thomas’s conception, Biddy’s pestering had driven me from Mam and Da’s cottage. If not for her, I would have never braved crossing our road, making my way through the nearby copse of oak and chestnut trees and down to the river, where I found Seamus stricken with grief and bawling over the fresh news of his da’s death. Had Biddy been content to let me grieve quietly over the ruination of my face, Seamus would never have laid his head upon my shoulder. I’d have never rested a hand on his back or kissed his hair.
I was only sixteen. He was twenty-two. Weeks previous, he’d carried me home after beating away the Flynns’ dog, whose teeth were tearing at my flesh. When a man saves your life, you save him back. You pick up his burden and bear it as your own.
I know it was a sin to lie with my sister’s betrothed. But with a face as scarred as mine, you don’t pause to weigh moral implications. A thin white line like a crack in spring ice begins in the centre of my forehead, then opens wide and slices southeast through my brow. The deep split continues across the bone ridge beneath my eye and ends suddenly where the rounded flesh of my cheek should begin. Across the outside corner of that same eye, a crest of bunched scarlet tissue, measuring three fingers, dips over my cheekbone, then narrows and cuts downward through my upper lip.
Our union was a sweaty and frenzied event that finished before I’d recovered from the wonder of its beginning. There is a tarnished place in my heart where I lock away fragments of memory—his ragged breath, the scent of damp earth, the bed of moss cushioning my tailbone. It is difficult to unsee the look of mortification that darkened Seamus O’Dougherty’s face when he crawled from between my legs afterwards and took measure of my disarray. Remorse still swims in his grey eyes sometimes when he looks at me, and floods me with shame, although not as much as in the early days after our union. I’d say that I regretted my sin, but then I’d be regretting our creation of the one good thing to come of my life—Thomas.
It wasn’t until a few years after we’d all immigrated to Upper Canada that the pieces fell in place and Biddy realized Thomas’s da is Seamus, not a stranger on the road as I’d claimed.
Since that day, Biddy has claimed the domestic realm. I mostly work outside. A line of hurt divides us as clearly as the Rideau Canal cleaves Bytown in two, with the English and gentry of Uppertown to the west and the poor Irish and French of Lowertown hunkered along the opposite bank.
We don’t discuss our situation. What can be done? Biddy swore an oath to Mam and Da before we stepped off the dock at Cork all those years ago. She promised to take me in and make sure no harm befell me, and to raise my unborn child as her own in this new land of fresh beginnings where no one knew us.

The stillness of Uppertown is a reprieve of sorts. Not a single painted carriage yet stirs. At this hour, rich women wrapped in flowered silk robes lounge by their fires and order poor Irish girls in mended dresses to pour more tea. Along the hard-packed dirt of Wellington Street, stone-built houses stand two storeys high, with sturdy chimneys, proper glass windows, and polished oak doors hung with pairs of brass lanterns. The drawing of lace curtains as I pass by reminds me that I don’t belong on this side of the Rideau Canal. The British have a way of letting their inferiors know where they stand. They don’t mind venturing to the poor side of the canal to hire a blacksmith or to fetch incoming guests from ships docked at Sleigh Bay. But they don’t want us mincing past their houses.
The buildings are strung farther apart as I continue east toward Lowertown’s narrow streets, clustered hovels and outhouse reek. But before I can reach Sappers Bridge to cross the canal, the sprawl of two dead strumpets in front of a tavern grinds me to a halt. I should continue on my way, but something in their sordid condition compels me to linger. There must be someone else in the street who might help to cover them up or summon the authorities, like the man smoking his pipe in the doorway of a neighbouring house. But when he sees me looking, he promptly backs inside, then shuts the door.
I suppose we’re on our own.
The first body is propped up on a rough bench and leaning against the wall. Her head lolls to one side and her wide, bloodshot eyes are rolled upward to meet the sky. Her mouth gapes, the rotted and missing teeth telling me that she was no stranger to the feeling of an empty stomach resting against her spine. From a length of blonde hair that’s tumbled over her shoulder, a red bow hangs like an autumn leaf trapped in a tangle of branches. Her shift is peeled downward to her waist, leaving her breasts exposed to the world. A necklace of finger-shaped bruises circles her throat. Some brute has done this to her. She’s been arranged with her bare feet set far apart, her skirt hiked high, and her knees wide to shock the gentry passing by in their upholstered carriages.
The sight of corpses rarely startles me. In Ireland, Mam was a healer but the healing didn’t always take. People died. Sometimes they starved. I saw them. Death followed us across the ocean and slid bodies over the ship rails. Shrouds splashed into the briny waters. Men, women and children die here too from all manner of illness. But the ones taken by violence unnerve me. It’s the terror locked in their eyes that does it.
One of the dead women’s hands clutches the neck of an empty whiskey bottle. The other hangs over the shoulder of the second woman, lying on the bench with her head of raven-black curls resting on her companion’s thigh and her lily-white backside facing the street. Except for her scuffed boots and the stockings pooled around her ankles, she’s naked as the day she was born.
When the dark-haired woman shivers, a strangled cry escapes me. She’s alive, so now what? I’ve spent hours walking so that I can have a word with Thomas and sell this basketful of my sister’s curatives. To help this tarnished woman will draw attention to me when all I want is to move unnoticed through the streets—to finish my business and return to the refuge of our cabin in the southwestern woods.
Morning smoke has begun curling from Lowertown’s chimneys. Thomas will no doubt be stoking his master’s forge. Soon he’ll be hard at work and my chance to speak with him will be lost. It’s unlikely that Biddy will spare me for a second day. If not for my selling her wares, she would have argued against this day’s trip.
My decision is made. I’m leaving.
A thread of guilt tugs at me as I rush toward the canal. “Half given is better than full refusal,” Mam often said. Even a bit of help is better than none at all. But these women are the tavern owner’s problem. If he entertains the likes of murderous men for the sake of coin, he can deal with the calamity left in their wake. My anger flares. This town is filled with the mad-dog rabble of my countrymen. Until the winter timber season calls them back to the woods, they pass their nights drinking whiskey, fighting and releasing new havoc on the well-to-do of Uppertown, including those rich Britain-loving Irish turned Orangemen. They don’t lift a finger to help fellow Protestants like us.
Remembering these words from a Methodist circuit rider of my girlhood brings hot tears to my eyes. The blackest sin can be forgiven in the face of good works. Good begets good. I’m in need of both clemency and good fortune, so I turn back to the tavern.
Two scrappy boys, no more than ten years old, stand staring at the women while a third kneels and pokes at the inside of the dead woman’s thigh with a stick.
“For shame,” I yell. Caught off guard, they scrabble backward when I stride past them to pull the woman’s skirt down over her knees. The fabric is caked with vomit and smells of dried urine. When I wheel around, the curious boy drops his stick.
“Whoa,” he says, gawking at my face.
A second boy whistles. “It looks like something tried to eat you!”
The sleeping woman stirs on the bench and draws the boys’ attention away from me. When they giggle, I turn and fan my skirt to block their view of her bottom.
“Go on home!” I say over my shoulder, but when I look back at them, they haven’t budged. “Where’s your da or your mam?”
The boy who so far has been silent answers me. “Da’s clearing skid roads at a camp near Perth, and none of your business about where Mam’s at.”
The waking woman pushes herself upright on the bench and is instantly confronted with the blank stare of her benchmate. “The tree-chopping bastards! This is the second time in a month they offed a girl who owed me money.” She searches the vicinity of the bench and adds, “And they took my one good dress.” With an arm hugging her breasts, she peers up at me. She’s a slip of a girl, no more than eighteen years old. The endearing gap between her front teeth eases my twinge of nerves over the anger sparking in her eyes.
The only thing I have with which to conceal her vulnerable state is my mother’s shawl, but I’ll not be giving that up. It’s one of the two things of Mam’s I own. She wore it so often, it was part of her.
“Give me your shawl,” the girl says. “I can’t walk home like this.”
I bite the inside of my lip and say nothing.
“For God’s sake, I’ll return it.” Her hand stretches toward me and flutters with an impatience that makes my mind go blank. My hands do her bidding and pass the shawl. I’m not sure if I want to slap the girl or hug her.
She tucks one end under her chin and clamps it against her chest while she raises herself off the bench to gird her hips with the remain- ing length.
“Show us your bubbies again,” shouts one of the rascals waiting behind me.
She nudges me aside and stands with a hand on her hip. “Come back when your balls have dropped and there’s coin in your pocket.”
“Whore!” the boy yells. The others laugh as they tear off in the direction of the canal.
I want to run with them. Time is wasting. When I look back at the girl, she mistakes my expression.
“Name-calling don’t bother me. I am a whore—but I’m a whore with a plan. This is just the beginning for me.” She yanks the bow from the dead woman’s hair and pins it to her own. “Once I got enough money, I’m taking myself somewhere real quiet where no one knows me. I’m gonna start a new life. And I’ll live it on my own terms.”
“That’s a nice dream,” I reply and begin to walk away. I’m surprised she hasn’t learned yet that dreams are dangerous. When unfulfilled, they hollow you out until you feel worthless.
“Oh, it’s not a dream,” she says. “I’m going to make it happen.” As I turn around again to face her, she scratches her ear while studying me. “I’ve seen you near my shanty off Sussex, close to the market.”
“I deliver medicinal herbs to families in Lowertown.”
“Got anything to stop a man’s sap from rising?”
I nod. Her direct manner amuses me. In the O’Dougherty home, people seldom speak their minds.
“Eh, I knew there was a smile in there somewhere. You should use it more often,” she says. “Can you fix me up with some of that medicine?”
“I could.”
“Grand. I’ll be dropping that into some fellas’ whiskey,” the girl says. “I’d like to dose up Bess’s customers. Drive her fellas to my door instead. You know how it is.”
I don’t. There’s been no one since Seamus.
She glances at the woman on the bench. “Once the girls hear this one is dead, they’ll be going through her things and there’ll be nothing good left for me. I’ve had my eyes on her green dress so I best hurry over to her shanty if I’m going to have a crack at it.”
“I’ll want my shawl back,” I tell her, though my voice shakes as if I’m asking a favour.
She eyes me with amusement. “What are you called?”
“Finish your business in town and come find me. Everyone knows me as Peg.” And with that, she turns away and struts toward the Rideau Canal in my shawl, with all the dignity of a gentrified Uppertown lady.
The tolling of a church bell alerts me to the hour. If I’m to reach Thomas before his work day starts in earnest, I must run for all I’m worth. My damned luck, the cobbler’s nail stabs my left heel with every rushed stride and the wild swinging of my basket threatens to toss its contents onto the road. Can something not go right for a change? The sound of Peg’s laughter rings behind me until the labour of my breath takes its place.

Editorial Reviews

"[Tuinman] comes through with sharply detailed portraits of feminine resilience. . . . Unrest is an edgy adventure yarn about women’s freedom. It’s a thoroughly Canadian novel, yet it also has the flavour of the Wild West." —National Post

“Tuinman expertly paints this unsafe place in an unsafe time . . . [with] a satisfying and quite unexpected ending to one woman’s resolute journey to take back what is hers. A riveting, tightly plotted family story." —Historical Novel Society

“Dark secrets seeded in Ireland burst into full and furious bloom in Gwen Tuinman’s Unrest. With sharply-seen details of 1830s Ottawa, Unrest parallels personal and political peril in the gritty world of Bytown’s Irish poor. Tender, brutal, heartbreaking and true, this is historical fiction at its best.” —Beth Powning, author of The Sister's Tale

“In her stunningly beautiful story Unrest, Gwen Tuinman’s memorable antiheroes—the transcendent and mesmerizing Mariah, and the dazzlingly rebellious young Thomas—navigate the wilds alongside a gang of unforgettably diverse eccentrics in the lawless Ottawa Valley of 1836. The writing is a triumph—unflinchingly powerful and at the same time a meditation on motherhood, love, and what we must do to become our true selves. Tuinman’s prose is as remarkable and exquisite as its setting, saturated with period detail and heart. I couldn’t put it down.” —Maia Caron, author of Song of Batoche

“Meticulously researched and exquisitely written, Unrest is unapologetic in its starkly vivid depiction of Upper Canada’s frozen wilderness and the people who survived within it. A marvellous adventure.” —Genevieve Graham, author of The Forgotten Home Child

“I could not rest until I turned the last, thoroughly satisfying page of Unrest, a mesmerizing tale that drew me in from the first gorgeously lyrical page. With unforgettable characters and meticulous detail, the author immerses readers in the cold, hard-scrabble existence of Upper Canada and the soul of the oppressed Irish . . . A compelling story of deception and truth, terror and courage, subjugation and transformation, Unrest makes history both vividly particular and timeless in its incisive depiction of human passions.” —Lilian Nattel, author of Only Sisters
“Gwen Tuinman’s Unrest depicts a little-known aspect of 19th century Canadian history. Her portrayal of the lives of Irish immigrants to Ottawa is expertly drawn in remarkable detail, from political gatherings in taverns to encounters with the harsh winter landscape. . . . An important story that opens a window on what it means to fight for your place here.” —Suzanne Desrochers, author of Bride of New France
“Set in frontier Ottawa and the frozen wilderness of Upper Canada, Unrest offers a unique, vibrant account of the Irish poor as they navigate a society awash in hardship, corruption, and prejudice. Tough-as-nails Mariah and her rash, willful son Thomas come to vivid, aching life as they rise up against the oppressive forces that restrain them. A skillfully researched, compelling tale of resilience, love and the relentless pursuit of one’s dreams.” —Cathy Marie Buchanan, author of The Painted Girls
Unrest is a wild ride through a bygone world bristling with life. Tuinman’s flawed and feisty mother-son duo hold on tight through it all, losing and finding their way amid poverty and longing, violence and lies. An unforgettable portrait of human cruelty and its only possible conqueror, love.” —Alissa York, author of Far Cry

“Lively, many-voiced, and replete with detail, Unrest is a great adventure and an impressive portrait of little-known settler life around Ottawa. Its characters will live on in your mind.” —Alix Hawley, author of My Name Is a Knife

“I really, really loved Unrest . . . Unrest paints a stark and vivid portrait of a family bound in a tight knot of conflicting secrets, obligations, and desires, while invoking early 19th century life in Upper Canada in every rebellious, hardscrabble detail. The compelling, multifaceted characters raise entirely modern questions about the nature of what one wants versus what one needs, and which things are truly worth fighting for.” —Rose Sutherland, author of A Sweet Sting of Salt

“In this unflinching, gripping novel of survival and perseverance, Tuinman seamlessly weaves meticulous historical research with compelling, achingly human characters to bring 19th century Ontario alive on the page. From the squalid, grimy streets of historical Ottawa to the harsh camaraderie of timber camps deep in the wilderness, Unrest takes readers on an intimate tour of life in Canada’s past. An inspiring story of one woman's triumph against a society that dismisses her worth, and the inner fire that keeps us going through the darkest nights of the soul.” —Loghan Paylor, author of The Cure for Drowning