Up from underneath came a blue-black swell, rising in a long arc. Kay waited, hovering in the difference between herself and the whale.


Knopf Canada, September 2019


What is the difference between ourselves and other humans? Between human and animal? Where does that difference persist in our minds? These are the questions this sweeping, intoxicating novel explores in a voyage on the Morning Light, a barque from Nova Scotia sailing the trade winds to the South Pacific in 1911. After the death of their stern father, head of a residential school in western Canada, Thea returns east for her long-awaited marriage to a ship’s captain. She cannot abandon her much-younger half-sister, so young Kay also embarks on a life-changing voyage around the world.

“They ended up buying the little boy for four pounds of tobacco. He didn’t know anything. When he saw stairs he started down head first on hands and knees. Of course, he had no manners either! He had to be taught.”

from Kathryn Ladd’s account of her mother’s purchase

At the heart of The Difference lies a crystallizing event in Micronesia, where Thea takes a young boy from one of the islands as her own. The repercussions of this act reverberate through the novel—forcing Kay to examine her own assumptions about what is good and what, even with the best of benevolent intentions, is unforgivably wrong. Drawing inspiration from the true story of a Nova Scotia captain’s wife who purchased a child at the turn of the century, The Difference shows us a vanished world in all its wildness and wonder, and its darkness, prejudice, and difficulty too. She brilliantly illuminates our own times, through Kay’s preoccupation with the idea of “difference”—between people, classes, continents, cultures, customs, and species.

In sailing through a wilderness of new sensations and wonders, vivid and strange, The Difference takes on a deeper and more troubling past. As Kay works to understand how to be in the world, she asks questions that resonate today: what makes us human? How do we atone for unforgivable sins, and how do we make this right?

A breathtaking tour-de-force by one of our most celebrated authors, a writer with the astonishing ability to bring a past world to vivid life while revealing the moral complexity of our own.