Quill and Quire

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Pioneer Girl

by Maryanne Caswell, Lindsay Grater, illus.

Pioneer Girl reissues a vivid collection of letters written in 1887 by a 14-year-old Saskatchewan homesteader, Maryanne Caswell, to her grandmother at home in Palmerston, Ontario.
The narrative is filled with fascinating practical details, such as the making of a sod house, or “coffee” from left-over barley, that are reminiscent of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. But Caswell’s prose style is much more literary than Wilder’s, often attaining lyrical heights as she notes the beauty of prairie birds, flowers, and sunsets.
Caswell’s voice is full of humour and pluck. She shrugs off the many setbacks she experiences in her new life philosophically. This matter-of-factness, so admirable when she is attempting to force recalcitrant cattle in the right direction, is chilling when she recounts the death of her younger brother. It serves as a reminder of the harshness of pioneer life – death of children was commonplace.
This lack of emotion, resulting perhaps from an attempt to spare her grandmother pain, or from Victorian decorum, makes her stint us on details about her relationships. We never get much of a sense of her feelings for her relatives, although a rare note of annoyance or tenderness pierces the prevailing buoyant tone now and then. She is so disgruntled that her grandfather’s will does not leave her enough to buy a musical instrument that she doesn’t even pretend to grieve!
Lindsay Grater’s gentle pen and ink drawings complement the Victorian prose. Grater tends to concentrate on static scenes – the rag-tag smattering of buildings that made up Confederation Saskatoon, for instance. As with the text, one can’t help wishing for more glimpses of people’s reactions to the daunting new life they’ve embraced.