1151 A classic Kamloops novel
Prologue to Love
by Martha Ostenso, with an introduction by Hannah McGregor
Picton, ON: Invisible Publishing, 2020 (first published in New York by Dodd, Mead & Co., 1932)
$23.95 / 9781988784595
Reviewed by Miranda Marini
The thing about novels being situated in an actual, geographic place is how those depictions then resonate with readers who are familiar with its topography. Kamloops, where I was born, is a semi-arid desert in the southern interior of British Columbia — complete with sagebrush, cacti, and rattlesnakes — and is located on the Tk’emlúps te Secwepemc territory within the unceded traditional lands of the Secwepemc Nation. Bisected by both the North and South Thompson Rivers, Kamloops is a place that occupies both the urban and the rural, and like the confluence of the two rivers, it is a place of meetings and transformations. It is here that I now read Martha Ostenso’s sixth novel, which was first published in 1932. Prologue to Love, a book situated in Kamloops and the surrounding Thompson and Okanagan areas, is fraught with vivid and cinematic images of the British Columbian countryside, and Ostenso has written an incredibly whimsical and romantic tale about family loyalties, identity, and finding love.
Before we begin, it is important to note that the novel’s Odell women were widely known for their beauty and for being “no respecters of [men’s] hearts” (p. 45). As the daughter of the deceased Millicent Odell, Autumn Dean shares her proclivity and flirtatious nature but finds little joy in the socialite lifestyle of English society where she has spent most of her adolescence and young adulthood. After almost ten years, Autumn leaves her “pampered life” (p. 15) in England and returns to the Okanagan Valley — the home she has been longing for since her departure.
However, Autumn’s unexpected return, while a pleasant surprise to her close friends, leaves a bitter taste in the mouth of Jarvis Dean, who has been hiding a dark secret from his daughter. Unaware of the family secrets being concealed and suppressed, Autumn still feels their oppressive weight in the way her father strongly encourages her to return to England; but to combat these struggles and to re-situate herself within the community, within her family, and at the family farm, Autumn proposes that she and her father hold a dance for the entire countryside in celebration of her homecoming.
Enter Florian Parr — a gentleman and one of the most eligible bachelors in the interior. As the son of a “wealthy Scotch family with a ranch in the Okanagan Valley” (p. 42), Florian is very forward in his manner and shows great preference for the young Autumn Dean, engaging her in a series of dances. Autumn, “feeling the intensity of Florian’s eyes upon her” (p. 43), invites him into a dangerously flirtatious game of witty banter and sweet smiles; however, while Florian’s attentions feed her vanity, Autumn is quickly reminded that “[i]t was from the Florian Parrs she had run when she had left that shallow life she had known in Europe” (p. 45). Figuratively and literally escaping the expectations of high society, Autumn flees from the dance held in her honour, changing into her riding clothes and riding into the foothills surrounding her father’s farm, whereupon she meets Bruce Landor, her neighbour and childhood friend.
He came riding “down the narrow trail, his form looming black and high against the moon” (p. 46) as he approached. With his mother ill and his Merino sheep ready for shearing, Bruce, regrettably, was unable to attend the festivities at the neighbouring ranch, but the chance encounter between the two “swept [Bruce] up to heights of emotion” and “had brought a strange throb to his blood” (p. 61). With their friendship rekindling, both Autumn and Bruce become acutely aware that they are no longer children and that they have scarcely left each other’s minds since their reacquaintance. However, as their feelings for each other begin to blossom, their intertwined family histories and a well-kept family secret threaten to destroy any vestiges of happiness the two hoped to cultivate, and when Autumn learns the truth, she does everything in her power to protect her family and to protect Bruce.
While the plot is heavily propelled by this family secret and the consequences of its discovery, Prologue to Love is very much about one’s connection to places, spaces, and landscapes and how one defines “home.” During my own reading of the novel, I rediscovered a profound (re)connection to the Canadian literary canon and to literary representations of British Columbian landscapes, something I have rarely found the time to pursue since my graduate degree, and Autumn’s desire to return to her “home” — the place she was born and raised — deeply resonates with me:
Autumn Dean reined in where the road curved out to a steep incline above the town, and looked back down upon the diamond-studded valley she had left. When she was a little girl she had thought of the town of Kamloops by night as a jewelled brooch lying on a bed of black velvet, the river a ribbon of dim silver festooned about it. Now she drew in a breath of quick rapture in the knowledge that the metaphor still held. To the north and west of the great hills slept darkly with their brows against the stars, the majestic and awesome sleep of the colossal span of earth. The vast, silent flood of darkness in the valley below her seemed to be a mystic emanation from the heart of the mountains, for the sky was luminous as a green jewel. The pale road led southwestward, with erratic dips and curves through bald hills and sudden, deep ravines gloomy and sweet with balsam and pine (p. 21).
After living on Vancouver Island for four years, I returned to Kamloops in the spring of 2018, and my own return to the BC Interior was very reminiscent of Autumn’s first glimpse of the town after years away. Of course, Kamloops has grown in the ninety years since the novel’s publication, but at night, it still glitters with the warm glow of streetlights — like the “diamond-studded valley” and “jewelled brooch” Autumn describes (p. 21). Despite being more of a socialite than a farmer, Autumn feels a deep connection to Kamloops, the surrounding hills and valleys, and the family farm: “This was her land, the land where her heart had always lived, where the morning was domed with bluebell loveliness, the afternoon a charm of sunny languor, and the evening a crystal hung in the dark chalice of the mountains” (p. 32). Despite her restlessness in Europe and in the presence Florian Parr, Autumn is awash in an unfathomable calm once she is immersed in the familiarity of the Thompson-Okanagan — her home.
It is due to this deep-seated idea and perception of “home” that Autumn finds a kindred spirit in Bruce Landor. As a farm owner and operator, Bruce appears to be as attuned to the natural environment as Autumn, experiencing and admiring British Columbia’s landscapes and vegetation in much the same light:
The ancient weeping-willow trees drooped like a ceaseless lovely rain into their own dark and earthy shadow, and like a phalanx of green-tipped paint brushes the long avenue of Lombardy poplars stroked the sky, swaying in a whispered rhythm from the corrals to the Landor ranch house. In the tiny patch of sunlight that lay like a gilded shield between the house and the somber poplars, [his mother’s] irises bloomed, purple, yellow, and then again purple, on each satin lip a brilliant sunny stain. … The voices of the ranch hands, the bleat of sheep, the occasional barking of a dog, were rarefied to unreality through the blue filament of the air (p. 63).
In this sense, Bruce is far from the Florian Parrs of gentle society that Autumn has left behind, and their mutual appreciation for their land and their home is what draws the two together.
Having grown up on the farmlands of Manitoba and Minnesota, Martha Ostenso (1900-1963) brings experiential insight into her portrayals of ranch life, landscapes, and societal expectations, and she masterfully demonstrates the challenges of being caught in both the urban and the rural. Prologue to Love focuses primarily on Autumn Dean’s inner life as she re-establishes her connection to place and as she simultaneously accepts and rejects the socialite lifestyle — evidenced in both her flirting with and rejection of Florian Parr. The reader also catches short glimpses into Jarvis Dean’s internal conflicts as well as Bruce Landor’s growing affections for Autumn, which further emphasise the hardships Autumn must endure and the sacrifices she must make to protect her father’s secret.
In the end, Ostenso has written a beautiful novel that expertly depicts the choice between love and family, and while you may read Prologue to Love for the mystery and budding romance, you will stay for the grandeur of British Columbia.
Born and raised in Kamloops, Miranda Marini teaches at Thompson Rivers University in the English and Modern Languages Department, where she pursues her interests in British Columbian and Canadian Literature. Academically, her interests include ethnobotanical relationships and interactions between human and non-human environments, particularly in relation to the representations of place, space, and landscapes in British Columbia and Canada. When she isn’t busy teaching, she can usually be found working on various poems, short stories, essays, and novels – all forthcoming — in addition to spending time with her three dogs: Walle, Levi, and Marley. Editor’s note: Miranda Marini has also reviewed books by Roz Nay and Winona Kent for The Ormsby Review.
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