"Still true of small prairie towns today"

Jul 3, 2009 – Prairie Fire Magazine

FURY of the Wind by Doris Riedweg of Langley, BC, takes place in rural Saskatchewan, beginning in the summer of 1948. Sarah Roberts arrives by train from southern Ontario to the fictional town of Nimkus, somewhere along the present-day Trans-Canada Highway, east of Regina. A little past her mid-twenties, Sarah has come as a mail-order bride for Ben Fielding, who farms in the district, but Ben is late in meeting her. The station agent, Will Andrews, unaware of the impending marriage, is surprised that someone is visiting Ben, for the man has a surly, unfriendly reputation, and is shunned by almost everyone in town. When Ben does arrive, he barely greets his wife-to-be but hurriedly grabs her luggage and they drive off in his battered pickup truck.

Sarah is an unemployed schoolteacher, having given up her career to help her mother through a long illness, only to find herself disinherited when her mother died. In an uncharacteristic move, Sarah then answered a newspaper ad and has been corresponding with Ben before agreeing to marry him. But Ben is not what he has presented himself to be, and his farm is not the prosperous operation he led her to believe. He lives twelve miles from town, eight of them down a rutted country road, in a small, single-story clapboard dwelling. Though the house is passably clean and tidy inside, as if Ben had made some effort to prepare for her, Sarah is dismayed that the man does and says little to welcome her. However, having agreed to marry him, and having no home to return to, Sarah decides to keep the bargain--a decision she begins to have doubts about on the very first night of the marriage.

Over the next few months, however, Sarah gradually adjusts to life on Ben's farm, taking up gardening and looking after the chickens, and horseback riding when she has the time. But Ben remains secretive and full of hatred towards others, telling her very little of his past or of anyone else in the district. His mother was native--a fact Sarah doesn't learn for a long time--and all his life Ben has encountered discrimination and distrust, though he brings some of this on himself. Nimkus, however, is a town where a subtle class system is in effect, and poor farmers, especially "half-breed" ones, are the lowest of the low.

Many of the townsfolk and neighbours give Sarah the cold shoulder, too, but she does become friends with the station agent and with a neighbouring farm family, Dave and Penny McNeil, and Dave's brother, Alan. Gradually she begins to take part in district activities, such as the Nimkus Fall Fair and the agricultural association. When the district's one-room school needs a teacher, Sarah gladly accepts that position. But there are still things she doesn't know about Ben's past, things he has deceived her about, and Sarah, too, has secrets.

The author's knowledge of the prairies is evident in her descriptions of the landscape and details of small town and rural life--some of which are still true of small prairie towns today. For instance, her friend Penny, an English war bride, says of the local people: "it takes a long time for them to accept anyone new. Look at me, I've been here four years and they still treat me like I'm from Mars or somewhere" (92). However, I felt the overall presentation of the prejudice and of the gossiping better-off women of the town was very harsh. I hope people weren't that intolerant just half a century ago.

There were a few other discrepancies too. For instance, Penny tells Sarah that her lilies should be perfect for the fall fair in late September, but in my experience lilies usually bloom in July, and newer, longer-blooming varieties wouldn't have been available in 1950 All in all, though, I enjoyed this book and its historical and geographical setting.

Author Doris Riedweg, a 78-year-old retired nurse, has previously published short stories and articles in anthologies and major Canadian newspapers, but this is her first novel. She grew up in the southeastern Saskatchewan town of Wapella, and her fictional town has a very similar landscape, though she insists that none of her characters bear any resemblance to herself or people from her past. Riedweg has completed two other manuscripts and is considering whether to write a sequel to Fury of the Wind.

By Donna Gamache

Donna Gamache is the author of Spruce Woods Adventure (Compascore Manitoba) as well as many short stories for both children and adults.