When She Has Crossed the Bar

  • Agnes Grant
    May There Be No Sadness of Farewell. Vantage Press
Reviewed by Lindy Ledohowski

Author Agnes Grant (nee Dyck) passed away in July 2009 just as her first novel, May There Be No Sadness of Farewell, was about to go to print. Grant was a lifelong educator, working in rural schools and then in teacher education at Brandon University, where she was a dedicated professor and administrator. She authored five non-fiction, academic books. After retiring, she turned her hand to fiction, and May There Be No Sadness of Farewell is the posthumous product of that late-in-life shift in focus.

But was it really a shift in focus? Grant’s academic work centred around oral storytelling traditions, with a particular emphasis on First Nations voices and post-residential school recovery experiences. May There Be No Sadness of Farewell is a novel that tells the story of three women—Rita, Hanya, and Elizabeth—who share a geographical proximity to one another in Saskatchewan but who come from very different cultures. It gives the narrative focus of historical events to the traditionally marginalized voices of women marked as “other.” In the words of Mary Froese’s introduction, “the impact events had on Aboriginal and immigrant Canadians, especially the women, have rarely been examined as vividly as in this story.”

Each character develops through chapters that follow her particular story line, and these dedicated chapters flow chronologically and interweave with one another, giving the reader a sense of the simultaneity of the lives being narrated. The plots of each character’s story tells the history of her particular ethnic or cultural group, with a specific focus on women’s issues.

Rita is an Aboriginal orphan placed in a residential school. As an adult, she suffers abuse at the hands of her husband—a traumatized residential school survivor himself—and raises her children, ultimately becoming a recognized and wise elder in Regina who finally discovers her origins as a Cree of Poundmaker’s tribe. As she rediscovers her own Aboriginal heritage, Grant offers her readers a brief First Nations history.

Hanya is a Ukrainian émigré who arrives in Canada’s prairies, and as her husband dies, she raises their children and keeps their homestead going. When her children are grown and able to run the farm themselves, Hanya becomes a social activist and eventually a successful NDP politician, and through her Grant tells the history of Ukrainian immigration to the prairies and of the CCF and ultimately NDP.
Elizabeth is a Mennonite émigré escaping the Bolshevik revolution and arriving in Saskatchewan, only to suffer the vagaries of the Dirty Thirties. Elizabeth and her family watch helplessly as their soil blows away and she becomes more and more afflicted with “dementia.” While both Rita and Hanya blossom and continue to develop after the deaths of their husbands, Elizabeth’s story is inextricably linked with that of her long-suffering husband, Jacob. Part of the sections of the book devoted to Elizabeth and Jacob critiques the subordinate position that certain Mennonite ways of life demand of women. The toll of motherhood (and having only girl children) on Elizabeth’s fragile mental state serves as a vehicle through which Grant tells some of the history of mental health practices on the prairies, while also creating a specific Mennonite religious and cultural context.

This technique of telling larger socio-historical narratives that include historical figures and events through the experiences of individual women is one of the book’s greatest strengths and at the same time one of its weaknesses. It offers the reader a sweeping and engaging glimpse into nearly one hundred years of Saskatchewan history and is rich in research and detail to shed light on both well-known and little-known moments of this province’s past. While this chronicling may be interesting, it is not necessarily narrated in an engaging manner intricately connecting dry facts and details to plot and/or character development; it reads as though the historical detail is merely incidental to the storylines themselves. As well, the narrating voice throughout the book remains constant, despite having chapters devoted to three separate women. Instead of developing a particular speaking persona for each of the sections, Grant maintains a rather dry (one might say academic) voice throughout.

Yet as this book charts the lives of three women and ends with each of their deaths, it also alludes to Tennyson’s poem about his own approaching death. Published after the death of a woman whose own life story seems to have snuck into her novel in small ways—for instance, Grant focused her professional life on First Nations issues (like Rita); she was a life-long NDP supporter and political worker (like Hanya); and she was born to a Mennonite family (like Elizabeth)—this novel is a testament not just to the lives of Aboriginal, Ukrainian, and Mennonite women who have lived and died across the prairies, but to the life of Agnes Grant herself.

This review “When She Has Crossed the Bar” originally appeared in Spectres of Modernism. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 209 (Summer 2011): 160-161.

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