Shirley Harris’s Catherine of Cannington Manor shows how a young woman with a brave heart sets out to escape a tragic memory. Along the way, she finds love and adventure while developing many deep friendships.
After her father and lover are killed in a tragic accident, twenty-year-old Catherine Henson leaves England in 1897, bound for a fresh start in Canada. She settles in Moosomin, District of Assiniboia, North-West Territories, which later becomes the province of Saskatchewan.
While listening to a choir at a Christmas concert, Catherine hears “the voice” of Michael Jones, a handsome architect and contractor. From the outset, she knows she wants to hear that voice for the rest of her life. When she compliments Michael on his dancing, he says it’s easy when he has “an angel in his arms.” Their courtship is immediate and swift, and romance blossoms into marriage.
Together, they buy a cottage just outside Cannington Manor and name their farm Tanterra. They treat their business associates and friends like an extended family. A neighbour comments, “Nobody else treats the hired help like that.”
Catherine writes a column for the Moosomin World-Spectator, serves on the executive of the National Council of Women of Canada, and opens a haberdashery. One of her goals, in addition to running a business, is to raise a family. She wants four children; Michael wants six. She tells him, “I’ll have the first four; you can have the next two.” She gives birth to four of her own, then, to complete the half dozen, they adopt two more.
Harris takes readers on a travelogue as Catherine and Michael tour England visiting relatives. While touring St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, Catherine visits the crypt of Sir Garnet Wolseley, for whom Harris’s hometown of Wolseley, SK is named.
When their children grow up and Catherine and Michael move to Moosomin, daughter Laura tells her father, “I always judge the boys I meet by your standards – few measure up; Mom is one lucky woman.”
Harris punctuates her narrative with numerous references to horses. When a neighbour is killed in a horse and buggy accident, Catherine has flashbacks to how her father died. And when she views Alex Colville’s painting of a horse galloping headlong towards a train, she feels weak in the knees.
Catherine of Cannington Manor is Harris’s first historical novel, based on true events. Catherine is a composite of the lives of three women on the Canadian prairies from the late 1890s to the mid-1900s. The lavishly detailed descriptions of everyday mundane occurrences lead one to surmise that Harris must have used extracts from actual journals of at least one of these women.
In spite of trials and tears, Catherine is able to have it all – a thriving business, loving family, loyal friends, and the love of her life.
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