Prairie Books Now Interview - Let Us Be True

Reviewed by: Bev Sandell Greenberg

Strings... Of Pearl

Debut novel examines family dynamics

Writers get their inspiration in a variety of places. Erna Buffie's came from a want ad in the classified section of a newspaper: "For sale. Two mother-of-the-bride dresses. Size 12."

"Suddenly, there was this character Pearl, in all her glory: loud, blunt, grieving, and pissed off, at the world in general and her daughters in particular," says Buffie.

"So I started did Pearl become this woman who would sell her mother-of-the-bride dresses? What was her secret past? And how did it shape her children?"

Buffie's short story about Pearl won the Nova Scotia Writers' Federation fiction contest, but the character continued to haunt her. 

"Pearl kept knocking on my brain, saying, 'There's more to this. There's more to this,'" declares Buffie. 

And thus, her debut novel, Let Us Be True, came to be.

Set in Winnipeg between the 1940s and 2000, the novel involves Pearl Calder, her husband, and their two daughters. 

Pearl has many secrets: her sister's abandonment, her mother's premature death, her father's emotional wounds from one ware, as well as her lost brother and boyfriend in another war. 

But Pearl embodies her past and unwittingly passes it on to her children in how she raises them; they are a product of her motherning. Only as middle-aged adults do they discover clues about their mother's past and begin to question her.

Throughout the novel the chapters hopscotch back and forth through time. "I wanted to write about women who had lived through the Great Depression, the Second World War and who, like Pearl, may also have grown up with a father horribly damaged by the First World War," says Buffie.

"Many of these women were intensely private and taciturn. As Pearl would say, they just 'got on with it,' but many never came to terms with the past."

Ever the storyteller, Buffie's background in making documentary films serves her well as a novelist. "The job, either as a writer or filmmaker, is to tell the story as vividly, compellingly, and truly as possible. Working in a cutting room teaches you what you absolutely need to say, what you can leave out, and how fast you can make the cuts, whether between places, characters, or time frames, and still keep your reader/viewer with you." As well, filmmaking taught Buffie about the vaule and economy of language.

As for the Prairie setting, Buffie insists that it is essential to the novel. "The Great Depression wasn't just an economic disaster; it was also a tangible, physical catastrophe because of the drought. Even at the best of times the prairies can be a cruel and forbidding landscape."

That said, she hopes that her novel isn't an exclusively "Prairie" story in terms of its themes and characters. Buffie once read that only through a deep knowledge of the particular can one write stories that are truly universal.

"I think that's true," she adds. "At least I hope so. I'll let readers be the judge of that!"

This article originally appeared in Prairie Books Now Fall/Winter 2015 edition. 

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