Saskatoon StarPhoenix Review - Wild Rose
Reviewed by: Bill Robertson
Wild Rose Highlights Prairie Woman's Struggle
After novels, short fiction, and meditations comes Sharon Butala’s 16th book, the novel Wild Rose. Butala, who now lives in Calgary, lived for years on a ranch outside Eastend, and this countryside is a very large part of the story. Wild Rose adds to a relatively long tradition of settler novels in the west, most of which, at least in the past, lauded the brave struggles of white pioneers to homestead the plains and turn this part of the world into a farming juggernaut. Butala, fortunately, knows which way the wind blows, and this blandly-titled novel has some modern surprises and is a good read, besides.
The wild rose of the title is Sophie Hippolyte, a naïve young woman who comes west with her brand new husband, Pierre, from the Quebec townships to get away from the loveless, rulebound life of her grandparents’ house, dominated as it is by a patriarchal church and social system. Butala, who knows how to structure a novel, moves back and forth between the wide open, dizzying expanse of the prairie, with everything new to Sophie, and the lush but hermetically sealed life of Quebec, with its lordly priests, angry nuns, and a mysteriously furious grandmother, all of them symbolized by the closed-in landscape of rivers, old roads, and hedges.
Within the first 50 pages of a 400 page novel, a man comes to Sophie’s home, where she’s been mooning for two days waiting for her husband who has gone to town on business. The man tells her he now owns the homestead, everything except the clothes Sophie and her four-year-old son Charles wear and can gather quickly. The man, baffled by Sophie’s existence on his farm, offers to drive her into town to see the lawyer who made his ownership, and her husband’s sale, legal. Here’s where every feminist’s — female’s and male’s — hackles will rise. Legally, Pierre has the right, out here in the territories, to sell his and his wife’s homestead, even if it’s to run off with a local 17-year-old girl he’s impregnated. As the Mountie they then go to is also careful to point out, if Sophie had done the same it would be different: “No wife can just up and run off and take a man’s children.”
After four years of intense labour, raising up a house and crop-producing fields out of prairie in what she thought was a loving marriage, her husband is gone, and she is a pariah in the town. Her husband has run off with a local family’s daughter. She has no money, no skills outside what she learned on the farm, and a child to care for. She throws herself on the mercy of a woman abandoned into widowhood who owns a large boarding house. Sophie will work hard simply for a room for her and her son. She gives out the lie that she’s merely waiting for money from home, but she’ll never ask for help from a family who knew Pierre was no good to begin with. “Don’t marry someone only to escape,” her oldest brother warned her, but she didn’t listen. She wanted to escape.
Back in Quebec there’s the suicide of a beloved uncle, unexplained, the rage of her grandmother, also unexplained, and vague feelings of dread and disgust that surround memories of Sophie’s other brother. These feelings run through the novel and prevent her ever seeking help back east. But here, “she was prey: If she let them . . . they would turn her into a slave, a drudge, into a . . . ,” and the word Sophie won’t use is prostitute. She glimpses one around town and sees what happens to her at the hands of the good folk who are too busy being self-righteous to be kind to unfortunate women like Sophie, her aging employer, or the other settlers who don’t speak English.
That aging employer, Mrs. Emery, tells Sophie, “No woman’s a free person, the way I see it. Leastways, not a poor one.” And there it is. Sophie spends the rest of the novel working hard, trying to avoid the fate of drudge or whore, trying to figure out what happened to her marriage, trying to assess the charms of a kind man who may be able to help her, and trying, overall, to figure out who she is, where this new place called West is, what she feels about the original inhabitants of this land who ghost the edges of her existence from time to time, and what to make of the huge pile of buffalo bones at the edge of town that gives the place its name, Bone Pile.
Butala is wise enough not to contribute to the long list of settler novels in which the land comes free and clear for the government immigrants, with no hint of previous occupants. She shows us the disinherited First Nations people, also bringing in Riel, the then-called rebellion, and antipathy from les Anglais against French Catholics that kept them moving westward. Pushing that agenda, Butala’s pile of bones, speaking of whole ways of life and species obliterated, Sophie knows not how, is a little heavy-handed, banging at the reader’s door and shouting, “You know damn well where the buffalo went.” But that’s a minor irritant in a solid story of a young woman’s education into life: “She began to feel in some obscure way that she had an entire part of herself—of her mind, and maybe even her heart—that had never been opened and that she was slowly, carefully prying open that closed door.”
Sophie is offered many ways out of her situation by men, all with a price tag attached. Butala carefully awakens Sophie’s sense of possibility: “She knew a little of herself now, and that knowledge would be the rock on which she would build the rest of her life.” It’s a pity a strong woman in a good story is so poorly served by both the title of the novel, which is a cliché, and by the book’s cover, which gives it the appearance, with the large-print title, of the most stereotyped western romance. The novel deserves better.
This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.