R94. Wild Rose by Sharon Butala

Year Published: 2015
Pages: 401

First Sentence: The first night she hardly noticed he was gone, and even though she had expected him back before the moon rose, she slept soundly.

I'm ashamed to say that I don't follow Saskatchewan publishing news very closely, and I also haven't read very many Saskatchewan authors. This is something that I'm planning to work on more once I'm finished reading The List, and here's as good a place to start as any.

Sharon Butala is a Saskatchewan author and Wild Rose is a Saskatchewan story, about a young woman, Sophie Carron Hippolyte, whose husband Pierre leaves her. The two of them have been farming a claim in the south eastern Saskatchewan prairies for three or four years, and have a young son, Charles. One day Pierre takes a trip to town to get a broken part fixed, and he doesn't come back. After a few days, when Sophie realizes that she and her son have in fact been abandoned, a man named Walter Campion shows up. Pierre has sold him the farm and the contents of their house, leaving Sophie destitute. Unwilling to contact her family back in Quebec for help, because they didn't approve of her marriage or her voyage west, Sophie ends up working for room and board at the local boarding house in the nearest town. She discovers that Pierre ran off with the teenage daughter of the new French-speaking family in town. Soon enough, Sophie begins making eyes at the sexy bachelor next door.

Interspersed with the "present" narrative of Sophie's struggles as a single mother in the very early days of European settlement of the prairies, we get glimpses of her childhood in Quebec. Having lost her parents at a very young age, she was raised by her grandparents. Her grandfather was the owner of a successful general store, while her grandmother had a background in the seigneurie. This timeline mainly shows how Sophie grew up unwanted and oppressed by the Catholic Church and then fell in love/lust with the first boy who paid attention to her.

The book isn't bad, but it suffers from being unfocused. I couldn't tell if Butala was more interested in the Quebec narrative, the settler lifestyle of endless work and hardscrabble survival, or Sophie's adventures among the town gossips. I'm not sure if Butala knew what she was most interested in, either. There's one really gratuitous aside in the book (I don't think it's substantial enough to merit being called a subplot) where Sophie is abused by a family member. This seems to have no bearing on anything else in the book, from the way Sophie relates to the other members of her family to her own sexuality, and I seriously wondered why Butala chose to include it. Besides that, I generally think the book puts an interesting spin on the frontier narrative, which typically features men or families, choosing instead to focus on what a woman alone might do.

And Sophie is an interesting character. It's easy to forget just how young she is—about 24 years old. Her rash actions in the Quebec timeline are carried over into the novel's present, when she continues to act in ways that could lead to a lot of trouble. She's someone who spent all of her time since leaving her childhood home working from dawn to dusk, and so it's only when she finds herself alone that she's able to spend any time thinking about what she wants. Unsurprisingly, by the end of the novel, she's still figuring that out.

As much as I like to ridicule the bleakness of CanLit, I missed it in Wild Rose. Butala focuses on the landscape and the natural world like any good prairie writer would, but I needed more of a sense of despair. On a word by word level, I also felt like there were some strange things going on with the prose in this novel. I specifically didn't care for how inconsistently the French words Sophie uses are peppered into the narrative.

The aim of reading more Saskatchewan novels is to really explore the psyche of the place, and this book sort of accomplishes that. Settler culture in Saskatchewan is built on these narratives of hardships suffered by people who were known by others who are still alive today (I'm thinking of my grandmothers' grandmothers here). As the 21st century moves on and Canada attempts the project of reconciliation with the First Nations people, these narratives will need to evolve and acknowledge some additional complexity. Wild Rose pays lip service to this idea, but doesn't want to confront it.

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