Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Wild Geese by Ostenso

Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1989, c1925.
309 p.

This is a classic Canadian novel, one which has been selected by Melanie at Roughing it in the Books as part of the Canada Reads Independently project hosted by Kerry of Pickle Me This. It has been on my list of things to read for a long, long time, so this finally pushed me to pick it up.

This novel, set in Manitoba, deals with a family under the thumb of a domineering, selfish man, Caleb Gare. His wife Amelia is browbeaten because he knows her life's secret; she had a son out of wedlock who was given up for adoption. Caleb uses this fact to force Amelia to follow along with his plans and his habitual thwarting of their children's desires and needs.

They have four children; the oldest, Martin, is twenty and slow thinking, but there are inklings he is beginning to see that the way they live is not quite right. Eldest daughter Ellen is completely under his thumb; she has very bad sight but is only given a hand-me-down set of glasses which are not her prescription -- she thus has continually irritated and aching eyes, but follows along with everything her father says because she does not want to have to admit that his treatment is atrocious. Daughter Judith is the focal point of the story - strong, beautiful as a wild creature, as stubborn as Caleb and full of raging desire, Judith will not be cowed. Her desire for neighbour Sven Sandbo adds drama to the story, as he would like to marry her, and Judith must decide whether to buck Caleb's orders and leave the rest of the family to pay the consequences of her escape. There is also a younger son, Charlie, but he appears at the edges of the story and does not play any real part in the action, other than to skulk around acting as selfish and sneaky as Caleb. There is no indication by the end of the book what will become of him, but one can hope he won't turn out as a replica of his abusive and nasty father. The routine of the family is one of constant work; they must all work themselves ragged, keeping the farm going to provide maximum profit for Caleb, who oversees their duties, watching rather than helping. They are not allowed to leave the farm without his express permission.

Into this dysfunctional setting comes a young schoolteacher, Lind Archer. She is to take the local school for a year, and Caleb and Amelia board her -- although this seems unlikely in one way, Caleb is on the school board and so prides himself on his importance that he must have the privilege of boarding the teacher. Lind's view as an outsider allows us to see this story as it unfolds, and her unintentional influence is just enough to drive Judith to action.

I have to say this was a really uncomfortable read for me. In style, it was very much of its time, something I am used to reading in New Canadian Library selections. But it had a dark energy, a sexuality and a violence which was disturbing. Caleb literally made my skin crawl; I wished someone would just put an end to him already - he was a truly horrible man, the more so for his habit of speaking softly and 'kindly' as he laid down his edicts and forbade anyone anything they wanted. As Judith finally has enough and reacts, his violent response was in character but so awful. I'll remember this novel for the dreadful character of this overbearing man, but also for the grit and power of Judith in standing up to it.

It was quite a read, and surprisingly for a novel of the Canadian realist tradition, it does not end in tragedy all around. Perhaps this is because there is still the influence of a more romantic tradition evident, especially in the characters of Lind and neighbour Mark Jordan, as well as some of the more lyrical descriptions of Manitoba. There is a rather satisfying ending, actually, despite all appearances. As Charlotte at Inklings says of this book, "If you’re going to make your reader hurt, you ought to give them some kind of release... Ostenso does not punish us in this manner, but instead offers us a very well-considered and beautifully executed climax and conclusion. I can’t recommend this one enough."

I'd second that: although this is not a perfect book nor one that I will likely ever love as much as some others do, it was a fascinating read, full of descriptions of the land that is the only thing Caleb really loves, and of the social milieu of this small Manitoba community of farmers - Icelandic, Hungarian, Norwegian, and more. I enjoyed the sense of place, and although I couldn't admire the Gare family (Caleb was just too horrible), Ostenso's skill in drawing these characters is significant and impressive. It's a powerful book and one with a lot more energy than some of the other New Canadian Library titles I had to read during my school years.


  1. This sounds like a challenging and fascinating read - thanks for sharing. I belong to an internationsl book group where everyone has to introduce books that represent their homeland but sadly we do not have any Canadians to introduce us to the Canadian realist tradition - I will give this a go, thank you very much, Hannah

  2. I have this in my stack as well; we seem to have a lot of favourite authors in common, so I'm curious to see if our reading experiences of this novel are similar as well.

  3. Hannah - an international bookclub sounds like a great idea. Too bad there aren't any Canadians there! I try to read internationally as much as I can but do find that I focus on Canadian writers quite a lot.

    Buried in Print - I'd be interested in what you think of this one - all the "classics" of Canadian literature seem to prompt very diverse responses!

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