Dear Editor & Friends:
Letters from Rural Women of the North-West, 1900-1920

by Norah L. Lewis,
166 pages,
ISBN: 0889202877

Mamie's Children:
Three Generations of Prairie Women

by Judy Schultz,
248 pages,
ISBN: 0889951675

By Snowshoe, Buckboard & Steamer:
Women of the Frontier

by Kathryn A. Bridge,
180 pages,
ISBN: 1550390864

Post Your Opinion
Frontier Women, Wills of flint
by Janice Fiamengo

Reconstructing the lives of women in Canada's past has occupied researchers for at least the last three decades. Still a great deal of material-lodged in archives, homes, and memories-remains to be tapped. Such reconstruction takes different forms in three recent books about Canadian pioneer women which examine their roles in travelling, settling, writing about, and shaping the social and physical landscapes of the Canadian West.

Mamie's Children is the story of Judy Schultz's grandmother, Mamie (Yockey) Harris. Mamie grew up on the Iowa prairie and then, after marrying Ernest Harris, moved to Nebraska before eventually settling near Wood Mountain, Saskatchewan, where she raised a large family and lived through drought and the Depression. Believing that "[t]hese lives we lead are not our own carefully deliberate journeys, but the sum of all the paths traveled by those who were here before us", Schultz begins Mamie's story with an account of Mamie's own grandmother, Magdalena Weaver, who left Bavaria for the New World in 1840. As Schultz reconstructs what little is known about Magdalena's difficult journey across the Atlantic, she comes up against the paucity of details and evidence. Because Magdalena did not write letters or keep a journal, her life circumstances have been irretrievably lost. To rescue Mamie's life from a similar fate, Schultz sets about interviewing the people who are left and piecing together documents and family photographs to create a vivid portrait of this "ordinary woman".

Thus begins an intensely personal history, not only of Mamie Harris, but of her daughter and granddaughter, her grandmother and mother-of generations of women like Mamie-and also of a region and a way of life. Characteristic of the account is Schultz's fascination with records, such as the collection of recipes, lists, notes, and clippings Mamie kept in a "green clothbound notebook with the words Cash Book printed rather grandly across the cover". The Cash Book provides access to the minutiae of domestic life, enabling Schultz to recreate Mamie's daily activities of gardening, preserving, cooking, washing, and repairing. With its many lists, notations, and scraps of quotations, the book comes to symbolize both what has been preserved and what has been lost. While Schultz delights in the domestic details revealed, she laments the lost memories that she failed to access while her grandmother was alive.

Schultz's beautiful writing turns what might have been merely a collection of facts and speculation into an engrossing narrative that brings the past to life and traces the myriad connections between the contemporary writer and her rural foremothers. The reconstructed family story is framed by graceful passages of historical background, which provide useful context without betraying the laborious research that went into them, as for example, in Schultz's succinct and elegiac summary of European contact with-and devastation of-the North American prairie grasslands. The lyrical prose is intensely evocative. Speaking of a fire that burned the family's only good harvest in two years, Schultz links smell and memory to emphasize their sense of loss: "When a big granary burns, the wheat doesn't turn to ash right away-it smolders and fumes away for days, and smoke hangs in the air, lingers like incense after a funeral, so every breath you take reminds you of your loss". As the portrait of Mamie develops, Schultz broadens her narrative to reflect on her own understanding of self and sense of connection to place. Mamie's Children is not only a tribute to a strong, vibrant woman, but also a meditation on how the past impinges on the present, pressing us to search it out in order to live fully in our own time and place.

By Snowshoe, Buckboard and Steamer is a far less personal, but no less interesting, book. Using archival records, Kathryn Bridge has researched the lives of four British Columbia women in order to retrieve "the voices [and] perspectives" of the white women who helped to settle the province in the last three decades of the nineteenth century. Because these women left detailed accounts of their journeys in diaries, memoirs, and descriptive letters, Bridge has mostly let their records speak for themselves, providing biographical and explanatory material where necessary. Sketches and watercolour paintings by two of the women are also included. Because Bridge's presence in the book is muted, the effect is of four distinctive voices speaking directly to the reader, relating adventures in a thinly-populated and challenging environment.

In her introduction to the collection, Bridge stresses the metaphorical meanings of the "frontier" as the link between the diverse accounts that follow. The frontier is not only a physical space, but a symbolic place "in which events occur that are on the edge or in advance of what follows". These women experienced the unsettled territory to which they travelled as a place of difficult adjustment but also of unprecedented freedom and opportunity. It was "a unique transition from old world to new world as social patterns and conventions were disrupted and the status quo dissolved".

The frontier seems to have offered more hard work than freedom to Florence Agassiz, who grew up in Hope, Yale, and the Fraser Valley. Her family's trip by canoe through the rapids from Hope to their new home at Ferny Coombe reads like an adventure that narrowly escaped disaster, and once at Ferny Coombe, unmitigated hardship was the rule. Reading Agassiz's flat, detached prose, one wishes a more skillful writer had done justice to her life-story.

Not so with the account by Eleanor Fellows. Fellows was a published author and an accomplished sketch artist, and her self-published An Octogenarian's Reminiscences contains a witty and polished story of her four-year residence in Victoria, during its transition from Gold Rush boom town to dignified colonial village. Her lively interest in her aboriginal neighbours and Chinese servants, as well as her humorous recognition of her own ignorance, are a valuable reflection of the kinds of relationships possible between racial groups in colonial territory. In addition, Bridge's marshaling of evidence to prove Fellows' unconventionality-the fact that she sang publicly, made friends with miners rather than her social equals, and rarely appears in photographs (then a much-cherished record of social relationships)-is a fascinating example of the unique challenges of archival research.

Kate Woods kept a daily journal when she and her brother travelled by boat to Kincolith, a small native settlement on the Nass River. From there, they embarked on an arduous, sixteen-day land journey by snowshoe to Ankihtlast to visit their elder sister. Woods' description of the journey, which she recorded for her family back in Victoria, is a detailed, colloquial account of an exhilarating experience. She continually exclaims over the excitement of river crossings as the ice gives way, her growing expertise with snowshoes, the humour of her native guides, and the delicious taste of food after a day of exertion.

Violet Sillitoe accompanied her husband, Acton Sillitoe, Anglican Bishop of New Westminster, on similarly hazardous journeys through his large diocese, which spread from the West Coast to the Rockies and north to Quesnel and Barkerville. Violet wrote to keep in touch with her mother but also to inform church benefactors of her husband's mission work. One of the most harrowing journeys was to Barkerville, a fourteen-day trip along the treacherous Cariboo Wagon Road.

All four writers' accounts testify to the courage, versatility, and sheer endurance required of early settlers in British Columbia, and also to the profound impact of the diverse physical environments on the women who settled there. The photographs alone make this a valuable record.

Dear Editor and Friends looks to a different source for information about the lives of rural women in the Canadian West: the women's pages of agricultural publications. Norah Lewis, who edited this collection, has searched through such periodicals as the Free Press Prairie Farmer and The Grain Growers' Guide to select representative letters from women who wrote to share their difficulties and triumphs, their questions and advice. Isolated by distance, these women were eager to make contact with other women, and often spoke of reading the women's pages as one of the high points of their week.

By turns lonely, humorous, and opinionated, these women, their identities disguised by pseudonyms, are unconstrained by the need to appear ladylike, to reassure a loved one or to shelter men's pride. "A Bacher's Wife" expresses the feelings of many when she writes, "I came out west ten years ago and have been married eight years. I have not had a happy day since the first year of my marriage." The writers' isolation, overwork, and pain at losing children are forcefully expressed, as is their bitter anger at discriminatory laws and male indifference to women's needs. Another writer deplores the difficult life of farm wives, made worse by their political and social impotence, but ends by describing herself as the typical "prairie woman" with "flinty determination, and unwavering courage". This mixture of anger and pride is characteristic of many of the letters in the volume. Sometimes the women debate men-and other women-over issues such as a wife's right to her husband's property, divorce law, and suffrage. As they articulate their opinions and share their dreams, the letters page becomes a forum for consciousness-raising and social organizing. In their unmediated honesty and the range of opinions and experiences expressed, this collection is a vital resource for readers tracking the everyday experiences of Canadian women settlers. 

Janice Fiamengo lives in Vancouver where she is pursuing research into the fiction and non-fiction of women social reformers in turn-of-the-century Canada.


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