Through 16 works of fiction and non-fiction Sharon Butala has established herself as a preeminent literary voice of the Canadian prairie experience. Moreover, her own deep observations and compelling characters challenge narratives of western development that are too often male-dominated and anglo-centric. Over a century ago her Le Blanc grandparents came from Quebec to settle near St. Isidore de Bellevue, Sask. (where my francophone mother Denise would teach school and where I still have relatives).
Butala’s first novel, Country of the Heart, drew on that heritage. Her brilliant new novel, Wild Rose, dedicated to two elderly Le Blanc aunts, tells the story of a young woman, Sophie Charron, who comes from Quebec in 1884 with her husband Pierre Hippolyte to make a new life on the plains of southern Saskatchewan. Enduring a harsh pioneer existence she finds herself abandoned with a child and must make her own destiny on this exigent frontier.
Sophie’s story is told in a non-linear fashion so that from the beginning we are immersed in the crucial circumstances leading to her ultimate choice. The opening chapter, Wind, situates her on the couple’s homestead farm near the primitive village of Bone Pile, a rising anxiety gnawing at her when Pierre fails to return home. From this first page the raw power of Butala’s evocative language is strikingly evident:
Toward dawn, drowsing, she came awake with a start to a low moan in the distance — ceaseless, growing louder as it advanced toward the cabin, until, arriving, it pushed against the cabin walls, the furred body of a great animal blundering determinedly by, the force of its desire set always on something further on, at the far edge of the prairie, while she lay. Already tense, listening over the wind’s noise for the sound of hoofbeats, or the creak of the wagon’s approach.
With a windblown uncertainty stretching to the horizon, a flood of memories and unresolved questions weigh on Sophie as her backstory unfolds between Quebec and Saskatchewan. The newlywed couple’s emotional departure for la grande aventure (great adventure) of coming west must have seemed like going to an unknown country, leaving everything familiar and familial behind. The journey was sure to be arduous. The hardships they faced were many, breaking the sod, living at first in a canvas tent, surviving the long winters. Their determination to remain French would be tested. (Full disclosure: I edited the many French phrases and expressions in the book.)
Gradually we learn more of Sophie’s upbringing from childhood through adolescence in a multi-generational conservative rural household where the traditional power of the Roman Catholic Church brooked no dissent. Sophie was a good if inquisitive girl who embraced the rituals of the faith (first communion was an especially big deal) and attended a convent school. But some things troubled her like why her uncle Henri was denied a proper funeral and could not be buried in consecrated ground. As a teenager approaching adulthood she became attracted to a handsome, slightly older boy, Pierre, but faced pressure from her father to marry someone else of his choosing. Her family strongly disapproved of any romance with Pierre and was ready to believe the worst.
This was a closed and confining world where shameful secrets (suicides, sins of the flesh, pregnancies outside of wedlock) had to be covered up and made right, where patriarchal authority ruled. It was small-minded, sometimes hypocritical, more inclined to summary judgement than understanding, much less mercy. Sophie and Pierre would feel its censorious sting, however unjust. Small wonder that Sophie’s idea to move west, to take up new land of their own, held out the promise of a blessed escape from such pitiless pressures. And under the vast prairie skies a different spirituality entered her soul, one that disbelieved in the established verities:
. . . how thin and small the bosom of the church she had been taught was her only and best home, the place where outside of God, all truth resided. Beside this wonder, she felt the church, its teachings, its power, slipping away from her grasp, it was like trying to catch water in your fingers, it moved on, it grew thin and pale, it vanished. (. . .) God would forgive. He would understand. She shook with the two ideas fighting against each other in her heart and mind, first one, the other, then she prayed: Notre père . . . (Our father . . .)
Throughout it is Sophie’s voice that drives the narrative. One of the special hallmarks of Butala’s writing is the extraordinary intimacy which that narrative voice offers the reader. We get deep inside Sophie’s head, sharing her innermost thoughts and questions.
For four years Sophie and Pierre struggle together to make their prairie home. It’s not all hardship and hard work. There are discoveries — the remains of buffalo bones, Aboriginal stone circles; small epiphanies in the midst of nature’s flora and fauna. There is joy at the arrival of another Québécois couple, Séraphine and Napoleon Beausoleil, as neighbours. Sophie gives birth to a son Charles to whom she is devoted.
Then Pierre never comes home and over the horizon arrives a stranger, Walter Campion, claiming he has bought the land and everything on it. Sophie learns that she has no legal rights. In this territory of male privilege she’s left with nothing and no recourse. Worse, Pierre has been unfaithful. Another woman is expecting his child. In a cruel irony he may even return to Quebec to seek a church annulment of their marriage.
What is a single mother with no resources to do in this situation?
Sophie is the wild rose of the title, determined not to wilt in the face of adversity and betrayal. She will not become hard-hearted. But she is tough and resilient, with protective thorns as necessary. For a time she finds accommodation in a boarding house in Bone Pile. She makes the acquaintance of a bachelor, Harry Adamson, moving into his shack when he leaves and transforming it into a café to earn money of her own. She spurns the offers of the unscrupulous Campion to set her up in the new town of Garden City near the Cypress Hills. Her sympathy for Bone Pile’s fallen women doesn’t extend to the brothel owner. If she accepts male companionship it is on her terms, maintaining her identity and self-respect.
This is where Sophie’s story opens a future of possibility. Because she has not been defeated by difficult circumstances. She has resisted being at the mercy of men. The choices she makes will be her own. As Butala writes: “She knew a little of herself now, and that knowledge would be the rock on which she would build the rest of her life.”
And it would be somewhere in this prairie place of wonder. There’s a final encounter with Pierre when he tells her: “You wanted the West, didn’t you? Now you are the West.” He knows he has wronged her and in those last words pays tribute to what has made her stronger, strong enough to overcome his desertion, to stay true to herself and to endure in this land.