Fairbanks has an interesting hypothesis: that early prairie women loved the plains and their adventurous lives here as much as pioneer men did. I have never believed in the myth that every pioneer woman was long-suffering, silently hating the prairie and the man who brought her here. I was pleased to think that I’d found here some justification for my belief Unfortunately, Fairbanks’ book reads like the dissertation that spawned it. It might make a good reference text for a women’s literature class, but as for being literature . . . One of Fairbanks’ problems is overkill: Her idea would make a decent article, but in a 300-page hardcover book she smothers the subject.
In her introduction, the author writes, “The present study is committed to this act of revisioning the lives of prairie women in Canada and the United States—looking back, seeing with new eyes, and entering old texts from a feminist critical perspective. I hope to discover new ways women writers have described the experiences of pioneer prairie women and how they have named the ‘new’ land—the land that was new to the pioneers but old and familiar to native peoples.”
Try to overlook the coyness of the second sentence (the introduction was obviously written after the rest of the book). Disregard the question of why we should care how prairie women “named” their land and the scarcely revolutionary information that the land was new to pioneers but old to the Indians. Try to ignore Fairbanks’ literary sloth: “revisioning,” a ridiculous substitute for “reassessing,” and the lethargic “looking back, seeing with new eyes.” Try to forget all this, because it is just one paragraph, and many of her others are better. Concentrate instead on the real meat of the passage, where Fairbanks is candid about her motivation for all this: She has a “feminist critical perspective.” She may or may not love literature and the prairie, but they both get bulldozed aside in her political zeal to build up a dry pile of evidence.
This, then, is the most disappointing thing about Prairie Women: that its tide is accurate. Far from inviting us to discover some obscure but talented writers, or to think of the prairie more kindly, the author combines fragments of original writing with truckloads of her own somnolent prose to prove her point: that pioneer women were tough and loved it here. Why did this dissertation need to become a book?
[Prairie Women: Images in American and Canadian Fiction, by Carol Fairbanks (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press) $19.95]