Monday, May 28, 2018

Wildwood by Elinor Florence

As Canadians flocks to cities, memories of our agrarian and rural roots are fading. Elinor Florence's novel reminds us of the magic and also the hardship of being tied to the land.

Lured by the expectation of money she hopes to earn by selling the land, a penniless Molly leaves Phoenix with her ailing daughter Bridget to claim the remote Peace River home she's inherited from a distant relation. There's a caveat: to get clear title, she must occupy the farm for a full year. Unexpectedly, her new life draws Molly in, helps heal the pains of her past, and improves her daughter's health.

Having spent my early life on an Alberta farm, I loved the rich linguistic memories this book evoked. From then: washboards, liquid bluing, sad irons, livery stables, stooks, grub for threshing crews, the moccasin telegraph, using a broom straw to test a cake for doneness, and batching.

From there: Hudson's Bay blankets, the Western Producer and the Family Herald (now a collector's item.) Saskatoon berries and chokecherries were powerfully evocative of place, and the farmer's familiar and laconic comment about the weather, "It's a scorcher," made me smile.

But the book also connects us to Here and now. In the small Peace River town of Juniper, the farmers are divided over fracking, the oilmen are routinely called rig pigs, and some local businesses are "in bed with the oil."

The eternal topics of cooking and home remedies made delightful reading. I also learned the correct Cree way to pick sweetgrass, and how smudge with it. It surprised me to learn that this plant, valued for Indigenous ceremonies and rituals, can also be used for basket weaving.

This absorbing story develops in multiple timelines. Molly's past traumas are slowly revealed through her reactions to present challenges and her bursts of strong emotion as repressed memories rise to the surface. After reading her great aunt's old journals, and learning about the physical and emotional challenges she overcame, the young woman finds courage to make an important decision at the end of her trial year of living on the remote farm without plumbing or electricity.

One of Molly's memorable lines describes a past love affair in a nutshell: "His office was filled with trophies, and soon I became one of them." Another line expresses the importance of learning to let go, forgive, grow up and move on. I enjoyed this satisfying moment of the protagonist's growing self-awareness, "Once again, I had allowed my past to poison my present."

Plot wise, I found this layered and suspenseful story hard to put down. I finished it in two days.

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