Alberta Views Review - Wild Rose
Reviewed by: JoAnn McCaig
Alberta Views Book Review
Wild Rose by Sharon Butala
It’s about time for a new novel from Sharon Butala. And it’s long past time for a new novel in which the experience of homesteading on the prairie is seen from a woman’s point of view. In Wild Rose, Butala tells the story of one very determined young woman as she tries to find freedom and a new life in what in the 1880s was still known as the North West Territories.
Sophie Charron is a lonely child being raised by unloving grandparents in a stifling upper class household in a Quebec village. The church has a stranglehold on every aspect of her young life. Her past is dark and full of nasty secrets, and the prospect of a new life on the prairie becomes entangled with her girlish lust for the handsome Pierre Hippolyte.
The novel is artfully constructed, beginning with Sophie’s present in the town of Bone Pile, interlaced with flashbacks to her early life in Quebec. Right at the outset, the dream Sophie shares with her young husband and their son is suddenly destroyed, and she must find the courage and resourcefulness to survive. Intriguingly, the last chapter combines an account of Sophie’s escape from Quebec—through her hasty marriage—with her imminent escape from her present as an abandoned wife. True freedom is won at last.
Butala’s previous works of fiction include Queen of the Headaches, Fever, and Real Life, but she’s probably best known for a memoir of her years on a ranch in southwestern Saskatchewan, The Perfection of the Morning: An Apprenticeship in Nature. In Wild Rose her marvelous attunement to the natural world is much in evidence. As the couple journey to their homestead, Butala skillfully engages the senses: “The wind came and went, the sun shone down with too little warmth and too much brightness, clouds came, scattered, melted away. The wagon bounced, swayed and rattled, their goods clanking, thudding, pinging, the oxen’s harness squeaking. Sometimes it was hard to stay awake, their wagon a raft on this sea of grass.” Moments when Sophie contemplates her surroundings are beautifully rendered, as when she first discovers the prairie’s tough and tiny wildflowers. And the winters! Butala’s account of Sophie’s and Pierre’s first Christmas in their sod hut is truly harrowing.
Wild Rose is an old-fashioned novel of character, plot and setting, refreshingly devoid of irony, angst, world-weariness or cheap flash. On the other hand, Sophie is no damsel in distress, but rather a grown woman in full possession of her ambitions and desires. Novels of the old West by such contemporary authors as Fred Stenson and Guy Vanderhaeghe have brought these days powerfully to life, but from a male perspective. With Wild Rose, Butala adds her woman’s voice to the prairie canon.
This article first appeared in the November 2015 edition of Alberta Views