The Work of Her Hands
A Prairie Woman's Life in Remembrances and Recipes
By Plynn Gutman
Poplar Press, 184 pages, $19
If Prairie farm wife Marie-Anne Lacaille were still alive, she likely wouldn't think her story remarkable enough to record.
Fortunately, her granddaughter Plynn Gutman didn't agree and in The Work of Her Hands, she has written the family history that most people never get around to putting together.
In this slim volume, heavily seasoned with Lacaille's favourite recipes, the Brandon-raised and Arizona-based Gutman tells the story of a pioneer woman from Saskatchewan and the hardships she had to face to keep body and soul together during her long life.
Born in 1902, the 11th child of 13 of a French-Canadian couple in Bellechasse, Que., Lacaille moved with her family in 1911 to homestead on a farm near Radville, Sask.
After three years of education at a one-room English-language school, Lacaille and her sister Audelie were put to work milking cows on the family farm.
As teenagers, the girls decided they had had enough of cows. They ran away to a nearby English farm, where their father found them within hours. Several years later, the sisters did escape by the only means available to them — marrying and setting up their own households.
But life as a farm wife still meant hard work, and Lacaille was busy raising five children and supplementing the family income by selling eggs and homemade butter.
As a writer and editor, Gutman understands the value of a good story and a strong narrative. She employs both as she tells her grandmother's life story through vignettes, recipes and moves from a Saskatchewan farm to town, on to Vancouver and finally back to the Prairies, where she dies at age 97.
Gutman focuses on one particular woman, but with the inclusion of down-home recipes made by feel and experience instead of careful measure, she is telling the story of all our grandmothers and great-grandmothers who worked with their hands.
Like many of us, Gutman regrets that she hasn't asked enough questions or listened carefully to her grandmother's tales of the past.
She writes about these lost opportunities, realizing too late that her grandmother had fascinating stories and worthy insights. "I value now what I did not know then," Gutman says. "When I was younger I was too taken up with my own life to embrace the richness and wisdom of hers."
Initially, the inclusion of recipes gives the book a parochial feel. But later, as Gutman demonstrates how Lacaille's skill in the kitchen was an essential ingredient to understanding who she was, and the reason for the recipes makes more sense (even though she's no competition for Mexican writer Laura Esquivel in Like Water for Chocolate).
By the end of the book, readers will be salivating for a taste of chocolate pie, twisted bread doughnuts, or even a bit of skinny steak. They might even want to try their hand at Lacaille's two ways to make a rug.
Winnipeg journalist Brenda Suderman is the granddaughter of two Manitoba farm women who worked hard with their hands all their lives.
Brenda Suderman has been a columnist in the Saturday paper since 2000, first writing about family entertainment, and about faith and religion since 2006.