Western American Literature Review - Wild Rose
Reviewed by: Megan Riley McGilchrist
Sharon Butala, Wild Rose. Regina, Saskatchewan: Coteau Books, 2015. 395 pp. Paper $21.95. eBook $8.76.
Like so many early observers of the West, Wild Rose's Sophie Hippolyte, is stunned by her first view of a new world:
[T]here was only the grassy yellow rise of land with only a tinge of new green. And that sky! Would it never end? Against the horizon there was nothing. Nothing at all, not even a single tree... She had never seen such a skyline, never seen such an empty ground, had not imagined such a place could even exist. (32-33)
And yet it does exist, indeed had always existed, and its timeless life will become intertwined with Sophie's own. And so Sophie, orphan and erstwhile Quebec convent school girl, protagonist in Sharon Butala's newest and most ambitious novel to date, begins her new life in the West.
In Butala's work, nature generally sets the tone, and this novel of Canadian prairie pioneers is no exception. The story of Sophie's childhood, coming of age, marriage, abandonment, and recovery is at first situated in the relatively benign agrarian landscape of southern Quebec. But heading west to Saskatchewan with her new husband, Sophie's world becomes harsh and demanding. After four years of struggle, her husband, unable to cope with the relentless struggle, abandons her and their young son, leaving her friendless and destitute. But from what looks like inevitable disaster and tragedy, Sophie rises, struggles, and survives.
The plot of the novel is a classic story of love and betrayal, and it is in the historical details that the novel finds its strength. Butala's own partly French-Canadian heritage gives the reader a window into another pioneer West, one little known to American readers. The repressive influence of the Catholic Church is also explored, something rarely encountered in pioneer narratives. And Butala's 19th century characters are vivid and convincing, the rigid, bigoted step-grandmother particularly well-drawn, her characterization bringing to mind all the evil stepmothers of fable and fairytale.
In fact Sophie's escape to the West has something of the fable in it as well, as she, barely grown, flees her old world with Pierre, her immature husband: a pair of babes in the woods. They travel hopefully, but are not prepared for what they will encounter. After leaving the eastern settlements, they awaken one morning to find that:
they had moved out of all enclosures – lakes, forests, hills, villages – into a space so vast that Sophie, standing to see better, became dizzy and would have fallen back into her seat if Pierre had not been pressed against her as he stared too. It was as if in the night the train had left its tracks and ventured into some new planet from the one they knew. Was this the West? (30)
In her perception of the newness and strangeness, Sophie approaches Butala's often cited "place words stop" (The Perfection of the Morning, 1994, p 55), and while she does not articulate Butala's sense of a numinous presence in nature, Sophie's appreciation and awe approaches it.
She had never seen such a skyline, never seen such an empty ground, had not imagined such a place could even exist...
[S]he wasn't afraid so much as fascinated and awed, and dropped her hand and stepped ahead of her husband, not stopping, as if she planned to go on forever until she had seen everything there was to see. (33)
Although the story moves away from this awareness, it remains an undercurrent in the novel, and when Sophie leaves the land she and her husband have farmed, she is still drawn to natural solitudes. When she has moved into the town after her husband's abandonment, and found work in a frontier boarding house, she
"walked out of a stuffy prison replete with the odours of stale cooked food, of coal fires, and carbolic cleaning fluids, into a fresh, free one. And calm rose from the land itself that as she walked, seeped into her too." (219- 220) In this the reader finds Butala's often-cited belief in the power and agency of nature and landscape.
While Wild Rose as historical fiction is a departure both from Butala's more philosophical work on the natural world and landscape of Saskatchewan, and her modern novels and short stories, it is a highly accomplished amalgamation of both genres with the added elements of history and cultural memoir. It is rumored that there may be a second volume to Sophie's story in the offing. That is a book to await with great pleasure.
Megan Riley McGilchrist
The American School in London