Prairie Initiation: A War Bride Story

26 June 2015

Prairie Initiation: A War Bride Story
by Joan Spencer Olson
Published by Benchmark Press
Review by Keith Foster
$19.95 ISBN 978-1-927352-19-9

Prairie Initiation is a love story of Anne Clark, an English war bride who moves to the Saskatchewan prairies with her Canadian soldier husband, Carl Swenson. Saskatchewan novelist Joan Olson, herself an English war bride, knows her subject well.

Anne and Carl meet at a dance, and the attraction is immediate. But the differences between them are deep. She has strong religious connections; he’s an agnostic. She smokes; he’s a non-smoker. Yet in wooing Anne, Carl plies her with chocolates and cigarettes.

Anne is stunned when Carl tells her he’s married, but it’s a marriage in name only. He demobilizes in Canada at the end of World War II, divorces his wife, and returns to marry Anne.

Anne is disappointed with their wedding, which takes place in a courtroom presided over by a judge, “a mere formality taking barely more time than weighing and stamping a parcel.” Anne also has misgivings about moving to Canada to live with Carl and his parents. She has a strange premonition when Carl’s mother tersely writes, “I hope you will not regret the step you are about to take.”

Despite the Swenson farm being the first in the district to have running water and electricity, Anne is appalled that their telephone is on a party line, where anyone can listen in. To complicate matters, Carl’s ex-wife, Karen, lives in the nearby town.

Anne feels a sense of “claustrophobic isolation.” As Carl catches up with his parents about the events he missed while overseas, Anne feels out of place, like a potholder hanging by the stove, listening in.

Anne’s introduction to the Saskatchewan prairie is more like a hazing – not in the physical sense, but certainly amounting to mental abuse and emotional bullying. Culture shock really hits home when, on the evening of her arrival, Anne turns on the taps to take a bath. Mrs. Swenson erupts in fury. Water is precious and not to be wasted.

Homemaking also proves to be a challenge. Anne’s first attempt at making salad dressing under Mrs. Swenson’s wary eye is a dismal flop and ends up in the slop pail. Mrs. Swenson thinks Anne is a total misfit for her son and a poor replacement for his first wife. When Carl’s mother sews a housedress for Anne, she is not pleased, thinking the dress makes her look “like a cricket in a flour sack.”

One of the strengths of Olson’s novel is the personal experience she brings to it. Being largely autobiographical makes it difficult sometimes to distinguish between Olson the novelist and Olson the war bride.

Despite all the difficulties Anne faces, Prairie Initiation is, above all, a love story that ends on an optimistic note, and one that leaves open the possibility of a sequel.


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