New York: A.L. Burt, [1925?]
There's an award-winning book waiting to be written about Montreal's Eatons. Sixteen in all, headed by artist father Edward and his Chinese wife Lotus Blossom, they were anything but the typical Victorian Canadian family. The children were raised in poverty – again, Edward was an artist – but managed to do fairly well for themselves. Sara performed on the stage, Grace practiced law and Edith, a journalist, holds the distinction of being the first Asian-North American writer of fiction.
A late career novel, in a great many ways "Cattle" marked a departure for Eaton. Here her fragrant, falling cherry blossoms are replaced by grain and the harsh, hardscrabble reality of prairie life. The first of her novels to be set in Canada – Alberta to be precise – it is populated by an odd assortment of Americans, Scots, Chinese and English remittance men. Ontarians, too.
Alberta is, in a way, a land of sanctuary, and upon its rough bosom the derelicts of the world, the fugitives, the hunters, the sick and the dying have sought asylum and cure.Its heroine, Nettie Day, is one of a very few characters to have actually been born in the province. A "slow-moving, slow-thinking girl, simple-mind and totally ignorant of the world", she cares for nine siblings on her widowed father's failing ranch. When dad dies, all but Nettie are dealt to neighbouring farms and orphanages. She has no other choice but to work for Bull Langdon – "I'm willing' to take her along with her dad's old truck." – who's looking for a girl to help his sickly wife with housework.
A former schoolteacher, Mrs Langdon is perhaps the most positive figure in all of Canadian literature:
She had an ingenious faith, imbedded from tracts and books that drifted into her hands in her teaching days; she denied the existence of evil, pain or illness in the world, and when it pushed its ugly fist into her face, or wracked her frail body, she had a little formula that she bravely reciterd over and over again, like an incantation, in which she asserted that it was an error: that she was in the best of health, and the everything in the world was beautiful and in the image of God.After a few months, Bull sends his frail wife off to rest in Banff. No sooner is she gone than he rapes fifteen year-old Nettie; the next day he informs her that she will be the next mistress of his ranch.
There are many deaths, including that of another of Bull's illegitimate children, an infant he kidnaps and all but tosses to his hired hands: "… there was a great swelling on the forehead, where he had fallen off the seat of the car to the floor. Its whole body, in fact, was bruised from the cruel bumping of that long mad ride".
I haven't mentioned the Spanish Flu Pandemic or that a character is gored, thrown and rent into pieces by a prize Hereford bull.
While Eaton's dark story is in no way a roman à clef – thank goodness – it draws on knowledge gained through her second marriage to Alberta rancher Francis Reeve. She published just one more novel, His Royal Nibs (1925), also set in Alberta's cattle country, before heading off to Hollywood.
Now, who's going to write that book on the Eatons? Why hasn't it been written already?
There also seems to have been indecision regarding the marketing the book, with American editions giving credit to both Winnifred Eaton and her nom de plume (in parentheses).
Curiously, advertisements for Musson's Canadian edition give "Winnifred Reeve (Otono Watanna)" as the author, though only the latter is credited on book itself.
|The Canadian Bookman, December 1923|
An American journalist and occasional poet, Putnam dedicated Love Lyrics (Chicago: Blakely, 1898), a slim volume of verse, to "Otono Watanna". Eaton provided the Introduction.
|Stephen Leacock, The Goblin, February 1924|
We of limited means can read the Musson edition online here.
Fifteen of our academic libraries have copies, but only two of our public libraries, Calgary and Toronto, serve. Montreal? Forget it.