Sharon Butala’s seventh novel – and first work of fiction since the 2002 story collection Real Life – is the kind of near-perfect book that proclaims the full expression of a writer’s artistry and sensibility. Wild Rose is written by someone with considerable life experience, someone who has made significant effort to understand the effects of place, time, hope, fear, and belief on the human condition, and, in particular, on the lives of women.
Butala’s heroine, Sophie Hippolyte, is a young, naive Québécois woman in the 1880s. Craving the freedom a move to the West promises, Sophie has travelled to Saskatchewan to settle a piece of prairie land with her new husband, Pierre. Four years into their stay, having toiled and suffered the hardships of planting crops, raising animals, and building a makeshift home in a frontier land, Pierre strikes out one day and mysteriously fails to return.
Sophie’s farm and its contents are sold out from under her to the unsavory land speculator Walter Campion – a man with predatory intentions toward her. Left alone with a toddler son, no family to turn to, and no money, Sophie has few choices: “if she couldn’t support herself by honourable means, she would be a bought-and-paid-for bride, slave labour on some homestead, or else she would fall and become a putain.”
Following Pierre’s departure, the novel begins to alternate between Sophie’s struggles to make an honourable life for herself and her son, Charles, in the small outpost of Bone Pile and Sophie’s upbringing in the strict Catholic home of her grandparents, her precipitous marriage to Pierre, and her journey west.
In Bone Pile, named for a large pile of buffalo bones on the outskirts of town that eerily signifies the recent conquest of the land, Sophie uses her wits and resourcefulness to open a business and integrate herself into the small community. Several of the town’s inhabitants are women who have been abandoned by husbands or sons and forced to make difficult choices to survive. But, like the hardy prairie flowers of the book’s title, survive they do. In Wild Rose, men are unpredictable and unreliable; women, it seems, manage better on their own.
With her sights set on an improved situation for herself and Charles, Sophie assesses her options. Should she venture further west to Calgary? What opportunities might be there? How can she afford to move again? Should she wait for some sign from Pierre? Should she divorce and remarry, violating her upbringing in the Catholic Church, “the harshest and most implacable of tyrants”?
Wild Rose is Canadian gothic at its finest. It offers haunting reflections on the landscape; the dangers and attractions of the expansive, untamed, unforgiving prairie that inform Sophie’s awareness of a world beyond the stifling dogma of the church; and the spectre of the past.