Brass Buttons and Silver Horseshoes

by Linda Granfield
140 pages,
ISBN: 0771035357

From Eve to Dawn, vol. 1, A History of Women

by Marilyn French
321 pages,
ISBN: 1552782689

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Canadian 20th Century Women Well Depicted
by Clara Thomas

Marilyn French is a well-known feminist scholar, teacher and novelist. A History of Women, her work-in-progress, is obviously designed to be a comprehensive and authoritative work, a bedrock standby for all enquiring women and especially for those who teach and take Women's Studies courses. Accordingly, this first volume, From Eve to Dawn, bears a heavy weight of expectation. The Foreword and Bibliography alone provide a solid foundation of scholarship, as French has worked for 10 years in conjunction with a troupe of numerous fellow-scholars and research assistants to produce this first volume. The book's argument, "thesis" if you like, is, as she points out, her own: "Although only I bear responsibility for the statements and points of view of this book, as well as the errors it must contain, I have not written it alone."

From the beginning it is quite obvious that the book will become a battleground, not only for forces for and against Women's Studies students and scholars, but for various attitudes and loyalties within the ranks of feminists themselves. I consider myself both scholar and feminist of long standing, but from sentence three of Part I, "Parents", I begin to react against the dogmatism of an unadorned statement such as this one: "At some point in the distant past, but probably not much further back than twelve or ten thousand years, men rose in rebellion against women." No source, no footnote. The following few paragraphs of its brief introduction enlarge upon this one bald statement. If you can accept this beginning, you will be informed by the vast array of information that follows, by the "story" that French wrote, as she says, "to make sense of what I knew of the past and what I saw in the present." If you balk at the dogmatism that marks the book throughout, you may as well avoid it all.

That considerable quibble expressed, I can recommend the book for its many qualities. Nowhere have I ever seen assembled such a quantity and diversity of material about women. Nowhere have I seen such material forged into a consistently readable, entertaining whole, unashamedly slanted in its sympathies towards women and definitely designed to instruct women of this and future generations. French is too practised a polemicist to indulge in crude and overt male bashing, but there is no doubt that from start to finish she is judge and jury and the outcome for the male is "found guilty." She covers a remarkably broad range of material. Part I, "Parents" consists of two chapters, "The Mothers" and "The Fathers". Part II, "The Rise of the State", deals with Peru, Egypt, Sumeria, India, China and Mexico. Part III, "God, Glory, and Delusions of Grandeur", considers Greece and Rome as well as the world's major religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. All of this is simply and readably written, designed primarily, I would say, for undergraduates, the numerous subdivisions within chapters providing easy access. The endpapers are maps of the world, and there are also two informative maps within the text, showing the expansions of Rome and of Islam.

The simplicity of the text will be welcomed by students, though its confidently authoritarian tone is sure to stir negative reactions among French's own peers. From Eve to Dawn will provide a useful, though controversial, text for years to come. That, undoubtedly, is exactly what French intended.

Brass Buttons and Silver Horseshoes, Linda Granfield's collection of memoirs of British War Brides, is a welcome addition to the ever-growing literature of World War II. We have in Ottawa an important and permanent History Directorate, staffed by professional historians and charged with numerous important projects concerning wartime Canada. There are three areas, however, all dealing with women, that have been relatively under-examined: Women in the Services; Women in the wartime work force and War Brides. Research and publications have been sporadic and meagre. Granfield's book is appearing late in the day, but it is very welcome for all that. As Anne Cavanaugh remarks in her contribution, "Don't you think it's about time we all dropped the war ębride' thing? After all, my husband and I have now celebrated our fifty-seventh year of bliss!" Canadian servicemen married women from the Netherlands, France, Germany, Belgium, Norway, Sweden and Italy. From Britain they married nearly 48,000 who came to Canada with 22,000 children. It is this latter group whose adventures Granfield is celebrating.

In 2000 a memorial plaque was put up in Halifax's Pier 21, where they first set foot in Canada. There is now an active Pier 21 Society and Resource Centre, soliciting and storing War Brides' memorabilia. From this Granfield has chosen forty letters and printed them alphabetically, interspersed with photographs of their subjects from the days of their youthful emigration. The plentiful illustrations are intensely interesting, recording young women, young children and often their uniformed young fathers as well. Every illustration signals an adventure story permeated with hope and charged with the indomitable bravery of a latter day pioneering spirit.

"Blimey! We were a rum bunch!" proclaimed a beaming Winnie Field of Manitoba after she watched her daughter portray her in The Light in Winnie's Window, a musical about the war bride's life. It was all there on stage in 2001: the young woman in uniform ęfor the cause' nearly sixty years before, her meeting with a handsome Canadian soldier at a dance, the marriage, the baby, the journey from Britain to Canada, and the surprises that greeted her upon her arrival.

Granfield writes a brief and pithy introduction to the war time situation: Canadian troops waited for action, sometimes for months and even years, their boredom only relieved by canteens and service clubs where they met young women as eager for diversion as they were. The inevitable coupling, courting and, often, marriage, followed. Just a few years ago Anne Cavanagh and her husband made a nostalgic trip back to Halifax and Pier 21 where Anne closed her eyes "and tried to visualize all the immigrants, servicemen, and war brides who had set foot on this wonderful Canadian earth with such high hopes. I hope that for the most part they had survived and found the happiness I had."

Of course some had and some hadn't. The letters carry messages of disaster as well as success. But by far the majority of the letter writers are still as happy with Canada as they were on the way over when they marvelled at the wonderful white bread and lavish meals that ships such as the Brittanic and the Aquitania put before them. They remember the awe they felt at the abundance of food of all kinds, some of which hadn't been available in England for years. They also remember every detail of their buying or borrowing or making their bridal clothes with the few clothing coupons available to them. Very often, when they said goodbye, they were seeing their parents and grandparents for the last time. Those who were financially able to make trips back home were in a small minority, though as the years passed such trips became more possible for many.

Above all, there is no whining in these letters: "I learned to do everything a farm wife was supposed to do: Canning, bread making, pies and cakes, making butter and all the rest of it." Some carry the message of an underlying disaster in a few terse words: "My grandmother died in 1959 and left me an inheritance. My husband wanted it in his account, and I refused. Our marriage ended, and I went to Saskatoon to learn to teach."

For some there were physical disasters: "When I arrived in Halifax, my husband, Lester, was very sick with tuberculosis that he caught in France during the war....I moved to the Annapolis Valley, Nova Scotia, to be near my husband, who was in the hospital there for two and a half years." For all, there was the inevitable loneliness: "In England, we played all kinds of games [at Christmas], but it wasn't done in my new home. I missed things like that dreadfully."

The Canadian Government met the challenges of this migration as best they could. Certainly they provided transportation that was inevitably crowded and sometimes makeshift, but remains a cherished memory in the recollections of many and was certainly a welcome prelude to the lavish array of foodstuffs they found in Canada. Granfield has interspersed the letters with excerpts from two quite remarkably useful government-issued publications: The Canadian Cookbook for British Brides and Welcome to War Brides. Wit and common sense combined in their information: "If you can make good doughnuts your husband will think you're wonderful! On the other hand you can buy them," and "You will become intimately acquainted with tomatoes, while some old friends, like Brussels sprouts, winter greens and broad beans you will meet only occasionally."

Pictures of bridal couples and stories of the weddings, often during the groom's last leave before being plunged into the fighting, are invariably moving. The brass buttons of Granfield's title were the men's insignia, while cardboard silver horseshoes were popular good luck talismans, a newly established but quickly traditional part of many wartime weddings. The letters make entrancing readingłone can only wish for more collections before time finally runs out for these women who dared so much and, mostly, achieved their goals, the marriages and families they wanted. Newfoundland was the destination of Rosalind Walsh who wrote the final letter in the book. She came from a city in Scotland and the shock of her father-in-law's house on Signal Hill, where all the water had to be carted uphill in buckets, was considerable. That was balanced by the warmth of her welcome: "The Newfoundland women were kindness itself. They're terrific bakers; their dark fruitcake, loaded with cherries, raisins, nuts, molasses, and spices, was a treat. Especially when accompanied by a quaff of homemade blueberry wine." We prospered, she says simply, and ends her letter with a Newfoundland toast whose gallant good nature would be echoed by most of her sister brides:

I bows towards you,
I nods accordant...
I catches your eye and I smiles. ņ


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