Author Plynn Gutman has created a beautiful tribute to her French-Canadian grandmother in The Work of Her Hands: A Prairie Woman's Life in Remembrances and Recipes. The book is part biography, part memoir, and part recipe book as Gutman shares her attempts to recreate many of her grandmother's original recipes. It also pays homage to the beautiful, albeit harsh, province of Saskatchewan, Canada of which Gutman says "When I am away from the land as I knew it as a child, I long for the thick freshness of the air after a thunderstorm, the lavender seas of flax fields rolling in the breeze, and the nutty, grassy scent of ripening wheat."
Gutman's grandmother, Marie-Anne, was the eleventh of thirteen children born to her parents in Quebec, Canada. In the early 1900s, when she was eight years old, her father moved his family to Saskatchewan to take advantage of the Federal Government's offer of homesteads in the new frontier. Life in the rugged province was difficult for everyone as they labored to break the land and create a home. The local population's prejudice toward the ever-increasing French-Canadian population who did not speak English made their life that much more difficult. Marie-Anne attended school for only three years during which time she learned to speak and write English; her education was cut short because she was needed on the farm.
At age eighteen, Marie-Anne married and moved in with her new husband's parents for the first few years of their marriage. She found no ally in her new mother-in-law when the older woman discovered that Marie Ann didn't know how to cook. "Mon Dieu! You don't know how to cook?" was the harsh rebuke of the older woman.
Over the next few years Marie-Anne learned to cook but she refused to give "that woman" credit for teaching her. Nevertheless by the time she and her husband moved to their own farm she was well-prepared to feed her husband and growing family.
The book is a fascinating tale of harsh prairie life and the tenacity of those who lived there during the harsh Great Depression years. It is also a somewhat-humorous account of Gutman's attempts to recreate her grandmother's recipes. In fact, she says about pie crusts that she "cried, cursed, mostly given up and called on my good friend Sara Lee to make one that isn't chewy or hard as stone".
I enjoyed this book on many levels. I grew up in Saskatchewan and many of the recipes in the book were for treats from my own prairie childhood; things like matrimonial cake, cornflake cookies, puffed wheat cake, and spice cake. The author's story about her grandmother's life is fascinating and I gained a fresh appreciation for those hardy women who originally settled in the prairie province. Finally, Gutman's love for the prairie is akin to my own; her vivid description of small prairie villages and the wide open land took me on a journey home.
Read an excerpt from this book (pdf).
Originally from Brandon Manitoba, Plynn Gutman left a career in the business world to follow her lifelong passion for writing. She received an MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley University and is the former director of the Young Adult Writing Project sponsored by Arizona State University's English Department. Gutman is a writing coach, freelance editor and teaches writing classes and workships in Canada, the US and the United Arab Emirates. Visit her website.
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