Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Living History with Sharon Butala, Paul Yee and Sharon Johnston

It was encouraging to see volunteers pull out more chairs to seat the audience before this ‘Living History’ event. The historical fiction novels, Wild Rose by Sharon Butala, Matrons and Madams by Sharon Johnston and A Superior Man by Paul Yee imagine the lives of the lower class, the marginalized in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.


As is the custom, host Susan Birkwood introduced each author and invited each to read a selection from their book. Quite out of the custom was to hear one of the authors, Paul Yee, recite an entire selection from his book without once referencing text. A Superior Man is centred in the time around and after the building of the CPR in Canada. Yang Hok, raised in a dysfunctional home in China, is in Canada working on a logging crew, a coolie. He is trying to restore respect to his family while toiling in an environment where the work is sub-human. Yee found there was little documented history about “peasants in the late 19th century” and the life of the coolies in Western Canada. At a time of social breakdown and a huge population boom in China, Yee imagines the lives of the men, who were likely “rebels, troublemakers and bitter”.


Matrons and Madams is Sharon Johnston’s first novel. The story is set in Lethbridge, Alberta after the First World War. Clara Durling, matron of the hospital, establishes the first venereal-disease clinic in Alberta, with Lily Parsons, a former schoolteacher and manager of a brothel called the Last Post. The views and actions of conservative thinkers, of prostitutes and gamblers, of union organizers are recounted. The city of Lethbridge openly accepted prostitution. The rate of ‘venereal disease’ was skyrocketing and the concept of public health was little known. It was a struggle to change attitudes and improve health, something Johnston noted that we continue to experience to this day. Johnston used her own grandmother’s experience as Matron in the hospital in Lethbridge, Alberta as a basis for story.


Wild Rose by Sharon Butala is centered on the life of Sophie Hippolyte, a young, naive Québécois woman in the 1880s. She moves to Saskatchewan to homestead with her new husband. After a few years he deserts her and their toddler son, the land is sold out from under her (the Dominion Lands Act made it impossible for women to own land) and she is left to try to make an honourable life in a time where women had few rights. In the small outpost of Bone Pile, Sophie starts a small business using her wits and resourcefulness. Several women in the town have also been abandoned and they must make difficult choices to survive. Her strict upbringing in the Catholic Church, the uncertainties of the future in Bone Pile or further west are all in play as Sophie considers her options for the future. Butala read novels of the period about life in Eastern townships to understand Sophie’s perspective.


During the panel discussion the authors spoke of how works of historical fiction provide the freedom and liberty to imagine the life of the lower class or marginalized where there is little or no documented history. Each novel, in its own way, tells of strength of character, human frailty and the impact of relationships on individuals and on communities, bringing life to history.