Cbr13bingo The Wilds, Bingo #3 (four corners and center)
Mrs. Mike is a novel based on the true story of Katherine Mary Flannigan, a Boston girl who moved to Canada’s Northwest Territory for health reasons in 1907 and then made a life there. The novel was first published in 1947 and still appears on high school reading lists. I remember the copy we had on our bookshelves when I was a kid, and I remember reading and loving this story when I was about 12 years old. When The Wilds appeared on the CBR13 bingo card, this was the first book I thought of, and upon re-reading, it still mostly holds up as a story of love and pioneering in the cold, remote, forbidding but beautiful Northwest Territory of Canada.
The novel begins in 1907 on a train headed from Boston into Alberta, Canada. Sixteen-year-old Kathy O’Fallon is headed to her uncle’s ranch because the air and climate will help with her pleurisy (a lung condition involving inflammation). Kathy is entering a world very different from Boston. She is one of the only white women in the area, and the winters are long and harsh. One of the first people she meets at her Uncle John’s is the handsome Mountie Sgt. Mike Flannigan. He is 27 and his “beat” is the untamed Northwest/Yukon Territory. Kathy and Mike quickly fall in love and get married, with Kathy and Mike moving even further away from the world she knew. The descriptions of the weather, wildlife and people “Mrs. Mike,” as Kathy will be known, encounters are outstanding, and it is clear that Kathy is falling in love with the region and its people as well as with her husband.
The novel follows the next 10 years of Kathy’s life, and in these years much happens that will test Kathy’s mettle and her marriage. Wolves, bears, wildfires, and deadly illnesses were very real presences out in this sparsely populated region. White women were few, and some of those had difficulty adapting to the harsh ways of the wilderness as Kathy had. Mental illness was also very real as was spousal abuse (often white men versus indigenous women).
Reading the descriptions of indigenous peoples and Kathy’s interactions with them is a bit unsettling sometimes. I suppose that is not surprising given the time in which Kathy lived and the time in which this novel was published. There is much about native ways that Kathy and other whites found primitive or superstitious, but Kathy also developed close relationships with some indigenous women and respected their abilities and knowledge. One of the settlements that the Flannigans moved to had a “mission” run by nuns, full of indigenous children who were being taught English as well as other school subjects. How or why these children were without their parents is not addressed. When Kathy needed a nanny (at the age of 17 or 18), she went to this school and brought home a native girl not much younger than herself. Her relationship with this girl is sometimes problematic (and kind of hypocritical) but I do think Kathy eventually sees that and tries to be a good friend to her.
Some of the more interesting and terribly sad chapters of this novel deal with illness and death. Diptheria, the 1917 flu pandemic and WWI all have devastating impact on this community even though it is quite remote. Reading about illness spreading rapidly through the settlement, having to put dead bodies in trees so as to protect them from dogs and other animals, and then trying to find people to help bury them all will stay with you.
While I sometimes found Kathy kind of childish and annoying, she was still a teen when she began this new life, and she experienced devastation and loss of the worst kind. One begins to understand how easy it would be to succumb to madness as a result. Instead, Kathy had to make a decision about which way her life would go. She is a much more mature woman at the end of the novel, and she demonstrates a resilience that one must possess to endure the worst that Mother Nature and life in general can throw your way.