Reviewed by Ian Thomas Shaw
Ottawa writer Susan Taylor Meehan's latest novel is a beautiful account of the clash between socialist ideals and Canadian conservatism in the 1930s. Her setting is the fictitious town of Halcyon, Saskatchewan, a small farming community hit hard by drought and the Great Depression. If there is one take-away from this novel, it is that far too little fiction has been written about this fascinating period of Canadian history. Meehan's work is a refreshing contribution to correcting that oversight.
The story is told from the viewpoint of Grace Thompson, a pupil of Halcyon's new school teacher Lucy Wallace. Freshly graduated from teacher's college, Lucy comes to the small Prairie town with first-hand experience in social activism. Growing up poor herself, she worked with Reverend J.S. Woodworth's mission in the tough neighbourhoods of North Winnipeg before earning her teaching diploma. Lucy is hardly a radical though. More of a social democrat than a socialist, her main motivation is to slowly raise awareness among the women of Halcyon about their political and social rights. But southern Saskatchewan is in turmoil. The banks are repossessing farms and the mine owners are imposing inhuman conditions on their workers, many of whom are recent immigrants from Eastern Europe. Lucy is recruited to bring relief to the women in the neighbouring mining town of Estevan during a prolonged strike for better wages. During her trip to Estevan, she meets the handsome Ukrainian immigrant Ivan Todoruk, one of the strike leaders. When the police are brought in to suppress the strike, Ivan goes underground.
Lucy is also befriended by Tom Flanders, the local organizer of the newly formed Saskatchewan Independent Labour Party. Tom introduces her to Tommy Douglas, a Baptist preacher, who later will become premier of Saskatchewan and the federal leader of Canada's New Democratic Party. The young teacher's political horizons expand considerably, but not everyone in Halcyon share her progressive views. The town is deeply divided between advocates for social change and conservatives who just want to ride out the hard times while preserving the status quo. In the shadows lurk supporters of the Ku Klux Klan, who the year before had almost succeeded in establishing a beachhead in the impoverished prairie town. As politics lead to violence, Lucy finds herself charged as an accomplice in a plot to seize the Saskatchewan legislature by armed force. The evidence against her is circumstantial and tied mostly to her friendship with the fugitive Ivan Todoruk, but the prosecution appears determined to make its case and begins to interrogate all of her pupils.
Meehan skilfully plays between the perspectives of the narrator, Grace Thompson, and Lucy Wallace. Grace brings an innocent quality to the novel and a childlike objectivity in depicting the conflicting values and beliefs of the adults in her town. Lucy's perspective, shown through her actions, rounds this off with a more sophisticated appreciation of the tremendous social upheaval and injustices of this chapter of our country's history. Meehan also deftly describes the tensions between new Canadians, mostly Ukrainians but also some Prairie Jewish farmers, and Canadians of English stock, underscoring that Canada's own struggle with anti-immigrant sentiment is not a recent phenomenon.
Written in simple prose, the story is a blend of sober realism and lofty idealism. It delivers a better understanding of the long struggle for human rights, especially women rights, in Canada while magically describing small town life in Canada's west. As Canadians and more importantly, our southern neighbours, are challenged by the politics of polarization and anti-immigrant rhetoric, Meehan's well-crafted story reminds us that we should be vigilant in defending the values of fairness, justice and tolerance, especially when others wish to paint the world in black and white.
Halycon Days is published by Burnstown Publishing.