Wildwood, by Elinor Florence Dundurn, 321 pp., $19.99
Canada has a sturdy history of books set in individual corners of the country — the New Brunswick of David Adams Richards, the B.C. ranch country of Paul St. Pierre, the Manitoba of Gabrielle Roy, Mordecai Richler’s Montreal, and more.
Elinor Florence has added two heartfelt novels that vividly portray rural Prairie communities. The first, Bird’s Eye View, appeared four years ago. It combined a tale of women’s roles in air photo reconnaissance in the Second World War with a moving evocation of 1940s life in the Battlefords area of Saskatchewan, where Florence grew up.
Now we have Wildwood, a warm and realistic portrait of Alberta’s Peace country. It’s also an entertaining read. Fans of her first will like this one, too.
A single mother barely scraping by in Phoenix after being laid off by an accounting firm inherits her great-aunt’s farm near the fictional town of Juniper in northwestern Alberta. There’s a catch: whoever inherits the two sections has to live on the farmstead, known as Wildwood, for a full year before being granted title to the property.
With no money, a four-year-old daughter struggling with a psychological disability, and the prospect of inheriting land worth $1.5 million, Mary Margaret (Molly) Bannister jumps at the opportunity.
She heads north to a livable but dusty three-storey farmhouse lacking both power and plumbing. Neighbours are friendly but sparsely settled on the surrounding roads. A sunny day with temperatures hitting 23C qualifies as “a scorcher” for the locals. Canadian Tire clerks laugh when she asks about buying a handgun for self-defence.
Winter, of course, is looming. Molly, the book’s narrator, effectively describes both the bountiful countryside where she arrives in August, and the brilliantly white, deceptively dangerous place it becomes in winter.
The writing can be poetic and inventive. Here is Molly’s account of hearing coyote howls in the night: “Each began with three short, sharp barks, then a long needle of agonized sound that carried all the sorrow of the world.”
She also discovers something unexpected in the old house: a diary in which the namesake great-aunt recorded her first year on what was then a new homestead taken up by her war veteran husband. Molly ends up reliving some of the original Mary Margaret’s experiences. Like her great-aunt, she grows in character in response the beauty and the challenges of the land. She has the company of four-year-old Bridget, local handyman Joe Daley and other neighbours, all of whom sound like people you could meet in real life.
There’s plenty more: physical dangers crop up without warning; an interesting bachelor threatens to overturn Molly’s determination never to trust men again; a girl from a nearby Cree reserve brings sadness, hope and lessons in indigenous culture; a vintage Five Roses cookbook inspires Molly to culinary adventures on her wood burning stove and will tickle many readers’ taste buds.
You can see plot resolutions coming from a fair distance off, but still be happy when they arrive — an indication of a satisfying story.
Available at Amazon.ca and Indigo.ca; and check your local bookseller for availability.