Calgary Herald Review - Wild Rose

Reviewed by: Catherine Ford

There is only one word appropriate for Sharon Butala’s latest book:  Beautiful.  Wild Rose is simply beautiful.

            No words of mine can do it justice because reading Wild Rose is a lock on your heart, a catch in your throat and best of all, a glimpse into the lives of our great-grandparents and every other immigrant to a wild and unforgiving land.  The CPR may have “opened” the West, but it was those people who came to the end of the line, or close to it, who took the promise of a new life and land and left everything and everybody they knew to be pioneers. 

            This is not the romanticized version told in hindsight, but the harsh reality of such a life.  And, full disclosure — I devoured this book before Christmas, but could not find the appropriate words to review it. Then I decided that there was no way to find the perfect words but to be honest — I loved this book.  

            Wild Rose is not a new story, but it reads like one because it is told from a woman’s viewpoint.  How refreshing is that?  It is a reminder that of all the hard work to wrest a living from a harsh land, it was the pioneer women who held up at least half of that expanse of blue sky; maybe more, as they plowed an seeded and harvested and bore the children, too.  Indeed, Butala dedicates the book “to the women who settled western Canada.”

            Sophie Charron is young, naïve and in love.  The “adventure” of heading west from their small Quebec village with her new husband, Pierre Hippolyte, means freedom from her unloving, cold grandparents, with whom she lives.  It’s an escape from the rigid traditionalism and even more rigid life circumscribed by the Catholic Church. They travel by train to the flat expanse of Saskatchewan to claim their homestead by looking for the survey stakes. There is nothing else around for miles.  Together. Sophie and Pierre clear the land, put up a one-room house and she bears a son, Charles. 

            So far, this is a familiar story.  But Pierre disappears and in his place arrives the land speculator to whom Pierre haso sold everything out from under her.  The law offers Sophie nothing; a real situation that was not rectified until after the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in the Murdoch vs Murdoch case in 1973 that a farm wife had no claim on land held solely in her husband’s name, regardless of the work she did throughout their marriage.  Eventually, after an outcry across the country, the laws were changed. But all this would happen nearly 100 years after the fictional Sophie was left destitute. How she and toddler son survive is the true heart of the story.

            In an interview published in The Herald, Butala (who now lives in Calgary) describes the genesis of the book as a realization that in her previous books, she had never told the women’s side of the settling of the west.  “I thought I don’t think I have succeeded in telling the story about women who were like the women of my family. They suffered tremendous hardships and struggles but were never defeated by what happened to them, who never lost their dignity and who always remembered who they were and what they believed their lives stood for. I wanted to create a woman like that.”

            Sophie is the woman she created.  It’s tough to believe she isn’t real, especially when Sophie muses she “knew the women didn’t speak of freedom and she wondered what it was they did speak of:  marriages, children, houses, gardens, not even of education.  But she had wanted more than the things the women spoke of . . . she had grasped onto the word ‘freedom’ and taken it as her own.”

            Had Sophie been a real person, I could imagine she would have caught the attention of best-selling author Margaret MacMillan whose 2015 Massey Lectures were turned into her new book, History’s People: Personalities and the Past.  Sophie would fit right in with Nellie McClung and sisters Susanna Moodie and Catharine Parr Trail.

            At one point in Wild Rose, Pierre says to Sophie:  “You wanted the West didn’t you? Now you are the West.”

            Indeed, particularly those of us who choose to live in the West, we are the West and Sharon Butala has captured the indomitable spirit not only of the pioneer women, but all the rest of us, too.  

WILD ROSE by Sharon Butala (Couteau Books; $21.95; 395 pages)

            (Catherine Ford is a retired Herald columnist.)  

This article originally appeared in The Calgary Herald.

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