After completing Sharon Butala’s epic new novel Wild Rose, I closed the book and thought: This is why she’s on CanLit’s “A” list. If you’re in the mood for getting completely swept up in a female pioneer’s adventure–and this means fully empathizing with the young Québécois idealist, Sophie, as she sets out in 1884 for the West and the freedom it signifies–then buckle up, because Butala assuredly leads readers back in time to a landscape where “the sun [pours] itself over everything: horses, the hats of the men, the few women’s entangling skirts, the children’s round eager faces, the …already weathered false-fronted buildings, piles of all kinds of goods on the ground from walking plows to stained sacks … to the teams of horses, the train itself …”.
Butala has a masterly way with landscape, making it, too, feel like a character you enjoy spending time with. Given her many years of living on the Prairies-plus the fine craft she’s already demonstrated with sixteen highly-revered titles, including GG-nominated fiction and nonfiction-she comes by this gift honestly. This is a writer who’s experienced “a yellow wildflower quivering under the weight of a bee” and looked out to see “only grass and more grass, hills and more low, softly sloping hills repeating themselves until they reached the far, light-filled, wavering horizon.” I assume there were winters when she, like her realistic protagonist, felt that people “were nothing out here in the West … barely human beings here, just helpless animals in thrall to the unimaginable, implacable force that nature was showing itself to be.”
Yes, the three big players in effective fiction – character, plot and setting – each get full marks in this cinematic book, set in “tiny, unprosperous Bone Pile,” but it’s Sophie’s rich interior life – the questioning of her Roman Catholic faith, her family, and what it is to be a woman; the reckoning with her unimagined challenges (including the shame of having her husband leave her, penniless and with a child); and the self-actualization she achieves in the story’s conclusion–that elevate this novel and should have it earning awards.
Butala’s capture of how an immigrant might feel upon arriving in a new land and culture – without language skills – seems both topical and, again, experienced. Sophie has the added challenge of coming from a privileged family–she was raised with a cook and housekeeper in the home–and thus has much to prove on the unforgiving prairie homestead, desperately breaking clumps of soil and carrying pails of water a mile so she might grow vegetables; and later, devising how she’ll provide for herself and her son after her husband abandons them.
The distinct chapters, reeled out between past and present, offer clues to how forward-thinking Sophie came to make the choices she did, and the last paragraph is so fittingly wrought I cannot imagine it any other way.
Wild Rose is a fully-realized and gloriously wild ride of a novel. It is a triumph, in every way.
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