Title: The Soured Earth
Author: Sophie Weeks
When Margaret Campbell left her home, a working ranch in the Canada prairies, for the East coast and college, she never meant to come back. In the aftermath of a tragic accident that claimed the lives of her aunt and uncle, however, Margaret is called home to help. There she must assume a much less glamorous role as chef, gardener, and mother figure for her orphaned cousins.
But when a strange sickness strikes their cattle and blights their crops, Margaret’s family is threatened with the loss of their ranch and only livelihood. Now caught in the middle of a full-scale environmental disaster, Margaret finds herself divided between duty to home and family and the fashion designer career she’s still struggling to build.
When I set out to write The Soured Earth, I knew I wanted to work with a deeply rural setting. Though I personally live in a small town few people have ever heard of, a couple of stoplights on a mountain highway, it’s still a town with a Chili’s and a hospital and a little park. I wanted to write about people who lived out where cell phone service is barely existent and neighbors are miles away. People for whom cattle is still big business. I finally settled on Alberta. It’s often described as a lonesome stretch of prairie on the way between the coasts, and it’s a place where there’s a continuing push-and-pull between oil companies and landowners, representing new and old sources of wealth in an age of scarce resources.
Still, in writing a book set in Canada, where I had visited but never lived, I found myself facing a number of unique challenges. I wanted the book to have a strongly Canadian feel to it—it seemed to me that Canadian readers probably spend a lot of time reading about things that happen in Alabama and California, and that it would be a wasted opportunity not to use my setting to its fullest. At the same time, I wanted to avoid using silly stereotypes. There is no one named Tim in my book (though I do mention the beloved Tim Hortons coffee chain), and only one offhanded reference to hockey. My goal was to incorporate touchstones for Canadian readers without getting mired down in details that would be confusing to Americans.
In the first chapter of The Soured Earth, the reader is introduced to Margaret’s grandmother: far from being a typical weatherbeaten country granny, Bonne-maman is a glamor-puss who wears bedjackets like Rosalind Russell and supports Margaret’s creative ambitions. Her bedroom is described thus: “Margaret let her eyes linger on the framed photos on the wall: Grandpa, Dad and Aunt Penny, the grandchildren, Pierre Trudeau, and the pope, just as always.” You don’t need to know who Pierre Trudeau was to take meaning from that sentence; Louise is a woman who values family and faith deeply. But for readers to whom Trudeau is a household name, another layer of meaning is added: Louise’s decorations reflect her Quebecois heritage in the same way that older Irish-Americans sometimes signal their patriotic and ethnic pride with pictures of John F. Kennedy.
In creating my imperfect portrait of the Canadian west, it was also important to me to include First Nations People. In speaking with Canadian friends, I was saddened to learn that Canada’s history of handling indigenous peoples wasn’t much better than America’s, and that the problems I was familiar with seeing among the Apaches and Hopis of Arizona held true for many of the tribes that called Canada home. The supernatural trouble in my book begins with a harvest dance gone wrong, and throughout, there is a tension between ethnic and community ties that reflects this vexed history.
In the end, The Soured Earth is a story about family. But it’s the story of a family that has poured blood, sweat and tears into the earth where they live. It’s the story of a community, already on the edge, devastated by a supernatural blight. It’s the story of a place in a lonesome stretch of Canada prairie.
Born in Phoenix, Arizona, Sophie Weeks received a Masters degree in English Literature from Mills College in 2006 and completed her PhD in Victorian Literature at Rice University in 2013. Sophie resides in Payson, Arizona with three furry miscreants, who are wanted in multiple states for criminal adorableness. She is also
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