Martha Ostenso’s Wild Geese (1925)
This feels, to me, like the quintessentially Canadian novel, the sort that I can imagine being assigned by English teachers (well, except for a couple of scenes that would have undoubtedly ruffled some parents’ feathers) and scoured for symbolic meanings and use of figurative language. I can smell the chalkboard dust now. Mixed with the smell of soil.
And, for me, this is a good thing. I met some of my favourite Canadian writers in English class and even though I know some of my classmates felt differently about Who Has Seen the Wind, The Stone Angel, and Fifth Business, they were books that I loved inside and outside of English class. So, take note: I was geeky about Canlit from the start; if you weren’t, you might not enjoy Wild Geese as much as I did. But I loved it.
If you’re not sure where you fall on the Canlit Geekiness Scale, whether you’d love this novel or not, you can suss it out by testing your reactions to this spoiler-free quote from mid-way through the story:
“It followed that Lind took the chicken, full of savoury dressing, to the Klovacz homestead. On the way she wondered at Amelia’s sudden bold generosity, and wondered also what the woman’s real self was.” (117)
See, there is nothing fancy about Wild Geese; it’s a homespun rural tale served up in simple language. You either warm to that or you don’t.
But Martha Ostenso’s novel does stand out because, unlike many traditional tales of rural life, it puts the female characters at the heart of her novel. Her female characters are opinionated and thoughtful, strong-minded and hard workers, and her frank treatment of sexuality and desire is remarkable amongst her contemporaries. A lot of the action is internal, circling the question of what exists as a “real self” for a woman whose existence is openly limited by a man, but if that’s the kind of action that pulls in your interest, I think you’d like to get to know some of these characters.
Especially Judith. I don’t think I’ve met a character like Judith before in early Canlit. She’s rebellious, spirited, intelligent and determined. She’s an Oprah-heroine-trapped-in-historical-Canlit. (But don’t let that put you off: she’s not a cut-out, she’s just as flawed as the rest of us.) Her character is revealed primarily through the observations of Lind, who is the schoolteacher boarding with the Gare family, subject to Caleb Gare’s household rules, and well aware of the influence he exercises in the community-at-large, but freed by the knowledge that her time there is finite.
I’ve certainly met a lot of Calebs (a character you love to hate, rather like James in Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Fall on Your Knees in some ways, but without the backstory that lends a certain understanding to James’ character), but he is well-drawn. Caleb is not simply a stereotypical tyrannical farmer who beats his wife and children, but a skillful manipulator who commands obedience with a quiet cruelty, who rouses complicity in family members who fear his wrath for themselves, sometimes, but, more often, particularly vulnerable family members.
The dynamics of this story are complex; the emotional alliances between the characters are unpredictable and shift as easily as Caleb’s temper, and the reading experience is painful at times as, like Lind, we are temporarily immersed in this cruel world. But the overall sensation is one of endurance and survival, and it’s clear to see why this novel has endured in the Canlit canon: I hope it continues to find new readers in its pretty new paperback format.