by Edith Cody-Rice
Jane Urquhart is a poet who writes novels. Oh, her prose is perfectly natural but it has a weight and cadence that is definitely poetic. To me, now, after eight novels, she is the voice of Ontario, particularly southern Ontario and perhaps old Anglophone relatively homogeneous Ontario. There is a sense of solidity, or rootedness in her language and in her stories. History weighs on its characters, but the history is the personal history in the larger context of world events.
Families play a large role. In Sanctuary Line, we have both the modern, diverse Ontario (although southwestern Ontario is less diverse, than say, Toronto) and the old agricultural Ontario with families who came north in the wake of the American revolution. UEL’s we called them – United Empire Loyalists. I was raised in that south western Ontario and to me, Jane Urquhart captures the life, culture and atmosphere there with acute observation and attention to detail and with the soft heavy cadence of her language.
Sanctuary Line tells the story of an extended farm family who evidently leave near Point Pelee National Park. She describes their cohesiveness, their liveliness and the disintegration of that family through a cataclysmic event – cataclysmic in the personal sense, and through aging, death and urban development. The death of a young soldier cousin of the narrator on a tour of duty in Afghanistan seems to complete the destruction, leaving only the narrator in the fieldstone house that was the centre of familly life.
Urquhart is skilful enough to let the reader sees things that the narrator does not, the implications of actions, as she tells her story. The narrator is a researcher into the Monarch Butterfly, a butterfly that lands en masse near the story’s farm on its long journey to its mating grounds in Mexico. The butterfly represents the fragility , the beauty, the endurance of life and the connection between Mexico and Canada which is reflected in the Mexican farm workers who return in cargo plances each year for the harvest.
There are a few times when one feels that the narratos is a bit dense, such as when she states , in adulthood, that she still did not know what had happened when she felt a frisson near her Mexican girlhood friend – the farm worker Teo. Pubescent sex, you want to interject. Most of us would realize that in hindsight in our twenties.
Still, Urquhart manages to interweave Stephen Crane, Carl Sandberg, Robert Louis Stevenson, Scribner’s magazine, Afghanistan, Mexico and Islam into her compelling tale of this extended family. And her sense of place is so vibrant and strong, it made me nostalgic for my own childhood in that part of the world.
Sanctuary Line was first published in 2010 and is newly available in paperback.