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Saskatchewan writer Candace Savage.

Handout

  • Strangers in the House: A Prairie Story of Bigotry and Belonging
  • Author Candace Savage
  • Genre History
  • Publisher Greystone Books Ltd.
  • Pages 274

Handout

Candace Savage lives in a Saskatoon house of about the same vintage as mine in Winnipeg. Mine’s a cranky old codger with a lot of layers, but some of the floorboards are original, wide and dark and worn by a century’s footsteps.

One of Western Canada’s most accomplished nonfiction writers, Savage is the author of an impressive portfolio of books going back more than four decades. She’s a member of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society and of the Royal Society of Canada; her twin beats are history and the natural world. And when a writer with the interests and chops of Savage discovers the detritus of her home’s original residents, it’s like the story gods throwing down a gauntlet.

Savage cares deeply about place, perceiving everywhere a vast well of the people, plants, animals and structures that have come and gone over time, and what that storied sediment shows us about now. Her 2012 book A Geography of Blood, in which she traced the history of ecological and colonial violence in Saskatchewan’s Cypress Hills, won the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction.

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Her new book, Strangers in the House, has much in common with A Geography of Blood. Both use a personal journey of discovery, sparked from Savage’s keen curiosity about a hyper-local place, to frame a deep dive into the past. Her narrative of discovery in A Geography of Blood starts when she buys a house in the town of Eastend, Sask.; in Strangers in the House, renovating her kitchen in Saskatoon serves as the catalyst.

Inside the walls, she finds hidden treasures, among them a man’s shirt, recipes for frosting, the cover of a cowboy book, math homework, a photographic negative of a group out for a day at the beach and a box that once contained Plasticine, with a child’s name scribbled on it. These items, it turns out, belonged to the house’s original owners, Clara and Napoléon Sureau dit Blondin, and their children. “This house,” Savage writes, “isn’t just a house. It is a story.”

Who were the Blondins? Drawn to the evocative objects, Savage asks the same thing. She tracks genealogies, local records, and descendants, who do not speak French, and inform her that their family did not live in this well-appointed part of Saskatoon for long. They lost the house.

Savage tracks the Blondins’ story: how they came to Saskatchewan from Penetanguishene, Ont., (and from Quebec before that), the ups and downs of their Prairie lives, and, especially, the forces working against them.

Napoléon and Clara Blondin were not famous, or even exceptional. But their names jump out at Savage: Many people don’t think “francophone” when they think of Saskatchewan. The myths of the West – the hearty immigration-poster homesteader, but also the exceptionalism, the disaffection – do not reflect its diversity. Savage says, near the beginning of the book, that one of her big questions, here and elsewhere, is: “What does it mean to be a Prairie person?”

While Savage is such a practised hand that she could probably weave a compelling story out of dental floss, creating a book-length tale out of relatively few clues requires a lot of dot-connection, speculation and wide context. Savage’s story weaves the Blondins’ life events together with pre-Confederation history, Métis history and political history. All of it is useful for understanding the Blondins’ world, but these side stories sometimes become red herrings, implying a direct effect on the Blondins that doesn’t play out.

The chapters’ French epigraphs set a linguistic context and showcase the author’s French-language reading. Savage also peppers French phrases into the main text, which lend greater authenticity to the story at times, but elsewhere come off as twee. And for a story that starts with the discovery of a photographic negative, very few archival photos are printed in the book, something I found disappointing as I flipped around for pictures that were described.

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Some of the early historical context can seem too elementary for Savage’s audience, a general Canadian history lesson you have to wade through to get to the meat. But Savage explains that she retells it because most people have learned only an official textbook history that leaves much out.

Ultimately, Strangers in the House contains a warning. The book’s subtitle is A Prairie Story of Bigotry and Belonging, and that "bigotry” refers to a relentless thread of anti-French, anti-Catholic sentiment in English Canada, including in Saskatchewan. Savage chooses to narrate incidents that will seem familiar today: Catholic nuns, for example, forbidden to wear their wimples when teaching school. Plus ça change. (See, it is a bit twee.) The Blondins, Savage discovers, stopped speaking French deliberately. “How lonely would you have to be,” Savage writes, “to give up your mother tongue?”

I have only bad French; I remember my rural Alberta school had to come up with an alternative to the ostensibly required French class because so many parents refused to allow their children to learn it. But my Franco-Albertan mémère recently turned 103; she’s older than my house, and she came west around the same period the Blondins built, and lost, theirs in Saskatoon. Savage addresses in the book the question of why she, not a francophone, gets to tell this story. We all intersect with settler colonialism, and with bigotry, in myriad ways. Savage writes in her introduction that we all have “skin in the game.” And we do.

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