Recollecting Home

  • Paul Chamberlain (Editor)
    Country Roads: Memoirs from Rural Canada. Nimbus Publishing
  • S. Leigh Matthews (Author)
    Looking Back: Canadian Women’s Prairie Memoirs and Intersections of Culture, History, and Identity. University of Calgary Press
Reviewed by Jodi Lundgren

S. Leigh Matthews has written a ground-breaking study of memoirs by white, English-speaking women that document western land settlement from around 1870 to 1950 in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Alberta. Most of the texts under discussion were produced and published between 1950 and the mid 1980s, often by daughters or granddaughters of the original homesteaders. According to Matthews, this body of work has been neglected both by literary scholars (who typically favour the individualistic focus and complete narrative arc of autobiography) and by historians (who mistrust the subjective, personal nature of the memoir form). Matthews recuperates these texts from pronouncements of failure according to the traditional expectations of either category. Heeding the function of cultural narratives in the representation of settlement life, she reveals that the representative Pioneer/Prairie Woman was created in Catherine Parr Traill’s cheerfully adaptive and dauntlessly optimistic image. The hegemony of this ideal has meant that those who do not conform to it (notably Traill’s own sister, Susanna Moodie), have—like the memoir genre itself—been deemed failures. In her book, Matthews aims to demonstrate that women’s memoirs attest to a much broader spectrum of gendered experience and that even successful adaptation itself was a heterogeneous process.

To demonstrate the re-visioning of dominant images and narratives in women’s memoirs, Matthews explores the connotations of homestead, with its feminine first syllable and masculine second syllable. Not only does the focus of women memoirists on the intimate, local concerns of home decentre the official, national ‘stead’-centred project, but their works testify that, especially in the early stages of homesteading, women’s work in the home (which generally encompassed vegetable garden and chicken coop as well as kitchen) provided both sustenance and income. The work of ‘Home’-building was thus, she argues, as important as—as foundational to, really—the work of ‘stead’-building.

Matthews defines the memoir genre as inherently relational, less concerned with exclusively the writer’s experiences . . . and more concerned with establishing the multiple forces (national/cultural/social/familial) that affected their family’s experiences of prairie life. Fittingly, then, one of the most compelling chapters in the book addresses the eco-consciousness apparent in these texts: using Riane Eisler’s contrasting dominator and partnership models of social organization, Matthews argues that, especially in their empathetic, subject-subject representation of non-human animals, the authors rewrite the exploitive, conquest-oriented narrative of prairie settlement. Matthews extends her claims for subject-subject representation to the memoirists’ treatment of First Nations people, although her evidence here is less convincing. Overall, Looking Back is a cogent, meticulous study that attests to the important role played by memoir as a textual space in which representations of women’s bodies chasing bears, fighting fires, running races, straddling horses, driving wagons and working in the fields contradict the dominant domestic ideal of the Prairie Woman.

In Country Roads, Pam Chamberlain has collected thirty-four memoirs by men and women who recall growing up between the 1920s and the 1980s in rural areas ranging from BC’s Kootenay region to the Goulds in Newfoundland. Fourteen of the texts have been previously published, including those by such well-known figures as Pamela Wallin, Roch Carrier, and Rudy Wiebe. In their form, the texts range from non-linear, associative reminiscences (Landing by Luanna Armstrong, A Solid Foundation by Kay Parley, and There Isn’t One Thing I’d Change by Brent Sutter with Andrew Leitch); to focused narratives with a complete plot arc (Fargo, North Dakota by Ruth Latta, Burning the Fields by Laurie Elmquist, Joining the Workforce by Andrew Beattie, and Section 29 by George Fox); to fractured stories that juxtapose past and present time-lines (Wave Riders by NJ Brown, Grandpa and Me by Chris Beingessner, and Road Trip: Why I Write About Saskatchewan by Shelley A. Leedahl). These fractured narratives challenge the uncomplicated relationship between memory and truth often assumed in the more conventional texts.

Some of the common themes that emerge in the collection echo those identified by Matthews: for example, the intersection between identity, gender, and farming is apparent in Marianne Stamm’s I Am . . . a Farmer: Some might say I wasn’t really a farmer—I was just a farmer’s daughter. They don’t understand. A teacher’s daughter doesn’t go to school with her mother and help teach. She isn’t responsible to help make sure the school runs smoothly. A farmer’s daughter is. This passage also points to the texts’ frequent emphasis on work, and particularly on children at work. Although some of the child labour may seem exploitive to urban readers, writers such as Elmquist, Beattie, and Fox emphasize children’s pride in building skills and the reward of bonding through work with siblings and parents. Indeed, the benefits of a country upbringing in developing strong core values and a secure sense of self are cited by several of the writers, including Wallin. Furthermore, like the eco-conscious writers in Matthews’ study, writers such as Sharon Butala, Keith Collier, and Gordon Tootoosis (great-grandnephew of the Cree leader Chief Poundmaker) express and appreciate a sense of connectedness to the earth.

Bearing out Matthews’ claims regarding the memoir form, most of the writers in this collection construct a relational identity as they recall the land, the people, the animals, and the labour that defined their childhoods. Yet it appears that, to use Matthews’ term, the textual space of the memoir may be the only place where that identity can still exist. Chamberlain laments that for complex reasons that are difficult to understand or articulate, it seems heartbreakingly impossible to return to that place. Tootoosis, however—while acknowledging the diminishing fluency in the Cree language among his people—remains optimistic: I see myself as being indigenous to North America, not merely to one small part of it. Invoking a subject-subject paradigm similar to that described by Matthews, Tootoosis says of raising his grandchildren at Poundmaker Cree Nation that like me, they can navigate in both cultures and accept people for who they are, while maintaining who they are. In this place, they have a strong base from which they can grow and then face the world.

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