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Liam Brennan, a young Irish immigrant to Canada, gets a job working as a surveyor in British Columbia's Peace River Block during the years just prior to World War I. As the war unfolds in Europe, Liam and some of his fellows enlist in the Canadian Army and shortly find themselves in war-ravaged Western Europe. At the Battle of the Somme, Liam suffers a terrible wound and is captured by the German army and put into a POW camp in Belgium. Though grievously wounded, Liam, against all odds, survives the prisoner of war camp and is still there when the Armistice frees the POW's. In the weeks following his release, he meets Marta, a young Belgian girl, and is befriended by her and her mother. After a brief visit to his family in Ireland, Liam returns to Belgium and marries Marta. During the long months of his confinement Liam had been strengthened by his resolve to survive the war and return to British Columbia and make a home there. He and Marta make their way half the distance around the globe to a place on the Peace River Liam remembered from his days as a surveyor before the war.
The story of their lives in this new and pristine country takes the reader through the next half century. The Brennans struggle with isolation and hardship. Their children and later their grandchildren take up the quest to make a new and better life. Along the way, Liam and Marta must cope with the deaths of some of their children, fiercely cold winters and insect-plagued summers. They see the beautiful river they have settled by become a target for a huge government-built dam. Liam struggles with the dichotomy of his love for the unchanged river and his involvement in the building of the dam. The simple life Liam had foreseen becomes clouded by the growth of the area, elemental forces of nature, the attitudes of his own children and his own guilt as an agent of change.