CM . . . . Volume XVIII Number 12 . . . . November 18, 2011
Adele Dueck’s latest novel, Racing Home, is a fascinating work of historical fiction that explores the unique experiences of early twentieth-century immigrants in Saskatchewan through the character of 12-year-old Erik Brekke. Having come from Norway, Erik arrives in Saskatchewan with his stepfather Rolf, his mother Inga, and his younger sister Elsa after months of searching the United States for Rolf’s brother. They find Rolf’s brother working with other settlers to develop a small town called Green Valley. Rolf had married Inga the year before, and his relationship with Erik is distant, so Erik is apprehensive when Rolf decides to take him to Green Valley to begin building the family farm while the women stay with friends. In Green Valley, the work of building the sod home and starting the farm begins to slowly strengthen Rolf and Erik’s relationship. Erik’s relationship with the Saskatchewan prairie also shifts from resentment to appreciation and respect as he starts to see it as his home.
As a Saskatchewan native, Dueck creates prose that effectively captures the complex beauty and lurking danger of the seemingly flat and barren prairie. The real story is in the extraordinary fine details of the human experience of settling on the prairie, such as the physical labour of building sod houses and the realities of living in those homes year round. In her acknowledgements at the end of the book, Dueck notes that the characters in the story are fictional, but that some events and the development of Green Valley are based on the history of her hometown of Outlook, SK. This connection adds some authenticity to the story as Dueck brings the time period and unique settler experience to life in a way that makes it real to modern readers.
While the main appeal of the story is in the details of settlers’ lives and their incredible daily experiences, the story is successful as a novel because of the realistic characters through whose lives the reader learns about the history. Erik is a well-rounded and believable focal character who invites the readers to recognize that the settler’s hardships and ways of living were not what many of them were accustomed to. For example, for many families living in sod homes, this type of dwelling represented a change brought on by necessity that was as foreign and undesirable as it would be for modern readers. The characters also provide some intrigue to the story as Erik uncovers the truth of his step-cousin Olaf’s parentage and discovers that Olaf has befriended a ring of horse thieves.
Life as a settler on the prairies is full of work and activity, and Dueck’s plot mirrors this pace in a way that balances the rich descriptions of the land without bogging down the novel. Readers will be drawn into the story by the characters and kept there by the powerful history of life on the prairies.
Beth Wilcox, an English teacher outside of Ottawa, ON, has her MA in Children’s Literature from the University of British Columbia.
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