In 1849, Jane Johnson is on a ship headed for Quebec City with her two children. She has had a relatively uneventful crossing – only one old man died and a child was stillborn. She cannot wait to be reunited with her husband Henry. Having left a year earlier, he is waiting for her eagerly. They both now think that they should not have separated. They each clutch the handful of barely literate letters. She has sternly told him that he must be at the ship to greet them. Fully intending to be there, he suddenly falls ill with uncontrollable vomiting and diarrhea and is dragged to a hospital. It is cholera and he realizes that he will die without seeing his little family again. As the boat docks, she thinks she sees him in the crowd.


A short story told always in the present tense from the two interwoven viewpoints. Henry attributes the many hardships that he encountered to being without his family. Jane vacillates between blaming herself for waiting, and blaming Henry for leaving.

This short story is a thought experiment in imagining details through the traces left by immigrants. Its topic is similar to that of Andrea Barrett’s Ship Fever also in this database.

In the postscript (p. 89), we learn that the real life Jane eventually finds her sister in London Ontario and receives confirmation of Henry’s death fully 3 months later. Within the year she has married an Irish immigrant farmer much older than herself and they have seven more children.

An Afterword (261-271) explains the writer’s technique in crafting historical fiction around extant documents about journey’s and transitions.


Based on a real set of letters published by the couple's great-granddaughter, Louise Wyatt in the journal, Ontario History, in 1948. The letters are excerpted at the Irish Emigration Database here.

Primary Source




Place Published




Page Count