6 September 2019

The Homesteaders
by Sandra Rollings-Magnusson
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Madonna Hamel
$39.95 ISBN 9780889775152

One day, while doing research for her master’s thesis on women and farming, author and professor Sandra Rollings-Magnusson was presented with a stack of questionnaires. Called ‘The Pioneer Questionnaires’, they were compiled and distributed in the 1950s and were still being returned in the 1970s by respondents born mostly between 1873 and 1924. She soon shifted her focus to culling, organizing and transcribing them into a book, determined to “give these people a voice” so they “would not be forgotten.”

The result is not nostalgic hearsay but a collection of witness impact statements, verbatim responses to a series of questions divided into relevant categories, covering everything from what Canada’s first wave of immigrants ate and did for fun, to how they survived ill health, storms and isolation. These stories and anecdotes hold the kind of intimacy and immediacy that only direct experience can convey.

The Homesteaders is replete with archival photos as well. Memories of immigrants escaping hardships in countries that included Russia, Germany, Poland, England, Norway and Switzerland are made more acute by imagery. As are recipes for pies and pot roasts made more mouthwatering by photos of rare feasts.

While we know well the story of the circumstances and the misleading invitations from the colonial myth-making machine that included the fabricated “reassuring tale”of the “Vanishing Indian”, what makes this large format paperback unique is the details. Each individual has a different way of retelling their story of their earlier days, all are told in heart-wrenching tones filled with honesty, humour, courage, tenderness, resentment, faith, pluck and uncertainty. For instance, Ethel Jameson recalls the alluring poster that read: “Go West Young Man to Find Some Land; Go West Young Woman to Find A Man”, while Sam Vickar “ran from a Czarist rule that treated ‘my religion and race as scapegoats.’”

Many new Canadians were on “a great adventure” when they set out for “the land of opportunity”; but many more were escaping “economic deprivation, political and religious purges, industrialization, pollution, overpopulation, starvation, conscription, class discrimination, [and] cultural barriers.” Here is a place for their stories.

The heroes of The Homesteaders are the prairie people who came, stayed and survived. Who, generations later, took up a pen and settled at a kitchen table, perhaps with sons and daughters and neighbours, for several winter nights in a row, and began probing their memories of their first days in a land of shocking winters and howling winds. I imagine them: pouring more cups of coffee, long into the dark night – a night still windy but less shocking – filling in the blanks, recalling those first dreams of “beginning a life”, “making it up as they went along”, “getting stuck”, “losing critters to hawks and coyotes”, “making bread rise from dried snow when the baking powder ran out”, “stopping trains with burning brooms”, losing fingers and toes”, “playing crokinole”, and of “singing humans, swearing men, bellowing oxen, scolding women, quarreling children, visiting families, [and] evening prayers”.

Magnusson’s The Homesteaders is all this and more.

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