On the Frontier: Letters from the Canadian West in the 1880s

23 March 2016

On the Frontier: Letters from the Canadian West in the 1880s
by William Wallace
edited by Ken S. Coates and Bill Morrison
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Keith Foster
$29.95 ISBN 978-0-88977-408-7

Have you ever wanted to be a fly on the wall, listening in to the conversations of others? On the Frontier: Letters from the Canadian West in the 1880s is the next-best thing. It chronicles the lives of bachelor brothers William and Andrew Wallace, and their widowed father, Peter, as they immigrate to Canada from England and settle in what is now western Manitoba.

Using his keen powers of observation, William corresponds with his sister, Maggie, back in Scotland. He signs his letters as Willie. His brother, Andrew, occasionally adds a postscript. Maggie’s letters, unfortunately, have been lost. What a shame. It’s like listening to a one-sided conversation.

According to editors Ken S. Coates and Bill Morrison, William wrote in a stream of consciousness, without concern for punctuation. As editors, Coates and Morrison added the appropriate punctuation to make for easier reading, but kept the wording intact.

One theme thoroughly permeating William`s letters are the hardships pioneers faced. Spring flooding would wash away bridges. But sometimes there wasn’t enough water. “The drought has dried up all the springs and ponds, and the grass is like tinder,” William writes. One day when they camped for dinner, their stove set the prairie on fire. “At one point where I was beating out the fire, my boots got so hot that I thought my feet would blister in them.”

Winter was not only unpleasant, but dangerous. While standing on a frozen spring, William heard the ice crack as he fell through. When he finally pulled himself out and got back to the house, his “trousers were as hard as boards.”

On the Frontier makes fascinating reading. When describing conditions, William uses evocative language, such as crossing a creek “by a frail apology for a bridge” He notes house flies “are continually going into something and even tumbling into your tea while you are drinking it.”

Mosquitoes were a persistent problem. “Sometimes they are so thick that they patter on your face like heavy rain.” He notes that when a mosquito pricks you, “he pumps out the blood until his body is as round as a bullet.”

In retrospect, some of the incidents William relates may seem humorous, but didn`t seem so at the time. During one lightning storm, thunder terrified the oxen, stampeding them, “with a plough and ploughman dangling helplessly behind them.”

All this makes entertaining reading, but On the Frontier also provides an important history lesson – without a railway, towns die. The book also contains a handy index and footnotes for clarification or explanation.

On the Frontier: Letters from the Canadian West in the 1880s covers only the period from 1881 to 1885, but William continued writing letters until 1904. This book therefore cries out for a sequel, or sequels, as readers will definitely want to learn the rest of the story.


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