The Sun Times Review - Wild Rose

Reviewed by: Andrew Armitage

Journeys of Varying Sorts

Moving on plays a role in three books centred on two women and a slave

I once had a friend who, travelling down the Trans-Canada, turned off at Eastend, Saskatchewan, and entered [Sharon] Butala country. I've had my own adventures in that small prairie town that comes complete with a great dinosaur museum, the Wallace Stegner House for visiting artists and writers, and some of the best knock-your-eye-out country that Canada has to offer.

Butala was born in an outpost hospital in Nipawin, Saskatchewan. After a failed marriage, she met Peter Butala and moved to his ranch in 1976. It was there that she began writing seriously; her initial book, Country of the Heart (1984) won the Books in Canada First Novel Award. But most of her best-known work was non-fiction, books like The Perfection of the Morning (1994).

Peter Butala died in 2007 and Sharon now lives in Calgary. Their Eastend homestead became the bedrock upon which the Old Man on His Back Prairie and Heritage Conservation Area was created. 

I hadn't really thought about this iconic Canadian writer until Wild Rose (Coteau Books, $21.95) came in for review.

A new Butala! In the midst of a late winter storm, I huddled in the kitchen, me and Sophie Charron, the young and in-love central figure of the novel.

Butala's book is dedicated to the women who settled western Canada (and her two aunts).

Sophie abandons (with glee) the small Quebec village she grew up in, heading west with a new husband, Pierre Hippolyte.

They are escaping old Quebec, cold grandparents and the Church. Butala writes, "They rarely thought of what they had left behind only six weeks earlier: a village, families, church, priests and nuns, streets and sidewalks, stories and hospitals and mayors and police. If they were reminded, they would turn and gaze into each other's eyes and start to smile."

But four years and a child later, Pierre has vanished and a land speculator shows up to say, "I sure do hate to tell you this, but your husband has sold me your farm. The land, the buildings, the crop, the animals. Even the contents of your house."

As late as 1973, Canada's Supreme Court in Murdoch vs. Murdoch decreed that farm wives had no rights to land held in her husband's name, a decision that caused both an outcry and a change in the law.

Sophie and her child go off to Calgary as the novel grows and expands to the reader's delight. Butala is one scrumptious writer whose descriptions of the grasslands are forever. "The last rays of the day were spreading like water out across the prairie far beyond the boarding house, a rose colour, beginning to deepen to purple back along the faces of the hills, and the evening stillness had descended, as if they were caught, all of them, in this little moment of paradise."

Wild Rose is an amazing novel that comes at a time when I thought there was little left to be said about the prairies, the subject of so many books over so many decades. This time around, the women who settled the west are given their due, helping to clear the land, provide the vittles, and bear the children. And I hope that even though Butala has nearly reached her 76th birthday, that there will be more to read from her wonderfully capable mind.

 

This is an excerpt from an article that appeared in the March 5th edition of the Sun Times. 

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