Thursday, August 22, 2013


Martha Ostenso’s house in Brandon, Manitoba, is now a spa!  A very nice house that belonged to my grandparents for a while, our Strachan family considered it an icon of success and so a cousin visited it.  Our Kovar farm machinery franchise was housed next door.   We had thought Ostenso bought this house as part of her success as an author, but in fact it turns out to have been her childhood home.  The only book we knew she had written was “Wild Geese,”  No one had read the book.  Until me.  She wrote another book, “O River Remember,” which I ordered from Amazon for a penny and have just read.

Note the covers change over time.  Here’s what the bio-sites say:

Ostenso (1900 - 1963) is probably best known for the award-winning novel Wild Geese, published in 1925. Hailed by critics as a landmark in Canadian realism, the novel is a story about a young schoolteacher sent to teach in rural Manitoba. “Wild Geese” won the 1925 Dodd, Mead and Company Best Novel of the Year Award and brought her much popular and critical attention. It made her a well-known and best-selling author.  The novel was filmed as “Ruf der Wildgänse” in 1961 as a West-German and Austrian co-production and as “After the Harvest” in 2001 as a made for television movie for Canadian TV. The movie starred Sam Shepard.  [I have it on tape and love it, but then consider that it has Sam Shepard in it so I wouldn't really care about the origin.]

. . . Martha Ostenso was a critically acclaimed best-selling author in the 1930s and 1940s. . . She is known as the founder of “prairie realism” in literature due to her writing which was influenced by her growing up on Manitoba and Minnesota farmlands.
Born in Norway in 1900, Ostenso migrated to the United States and Canada in the early twentieth century with her parents Sigurd and Olina Ostenso. Spending her childhood in small towns throughout Minnesota and South Dakota, Martha and her family moved to Brandon, Manitoba where she attended Brandon Collegiate School and in 1918 enrolled in the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. While attending the University of Manitoba, Martha met English Professor Douglas Durkin, with whom she became romantically involved and eventually married in 1945. During the 1920’s, Durkin accepted a teaching position at Columbia University. There he taught a course entitled “The Technique of the Novel” which Martha herself also enrolled in. While in New York, Martha took a social work job in Brooklyn before returning back to Minnesota with Durkin. Her first publication was a book of poems called “A Far Land” (1924) and a year later she published her most successful work “Wild Geese” which earned her a couple of awards and $13,500 in prize money. The book was originally titled “The Passionate Flight” and was later turned into a film. Some critics think that Ostenso collaborated on many of her novels with Douglas Durkin, who became aware of Martha's writing ability during her early years in Manitoba. Most critics consider, however, that Martha single handedly wrote “Wild Geese.”

In “A Man Had Tall Sons” (1958) the happiness of the story’s main family is willingly sacrificed by the father for the success of the family farm; a similar theme also found in “Wild Geese”. In “O River, Remember” (1945) the lives of two immigrant families are outlined over multiple generations in Minnesota's Red River Valley . . .  Ostenso and Durkin were to finally marry after the death of Durkin's first wife whom he had been separated from for many years and they took up two residences; one at Gull Lake, Minnesota and the other in Hollywood, California. Together the couple brought in about $30,000-$40,000 per year in royalties and continued to write throughout their lives. They owned a number of luxury cars, boats and homes and befriended many famous people such as Douglas Fairbanks, John Barrymore, Henry Fonda and Mary Pickford. Later in the couple's lives, the quality of their writing took a negative turn due to their decadent lifestyle. In 1963, they moved to Seattle, Washington to be closer to Durkin’s children and that is where Martha died on November 24th of that year. Her death was caused by cirrhosis of the liver. (J.Mckay)
For comparison Lucy Maude Montgomery (1874 -1942), the author of the beloved and famous “Anne of Green Gables” was slightly older, committing suicide (possibly) in the year before “O River Remember!” was published.  Montgomery, who tended to work in short stories united by one character, had a miserable life, particularly in a marriage to a troubled Presbyterian minister and also in a long war with her publisher.  Her work was an escape -- not a facing of reality -- and maybe that’s why it’s so popular even in Japan and Africa.  The lone oddball who becomes a scapegoat because she flies too high for radar is also a theme of Martha Ostenso's, but this is not remarkable since many of us can identify with that predicament.  It’s the intensity and truth of the description that makes the difference.

Montgomery addressed the small town trope with considerable effectiveness, but she didn’t go on to outline the wheel of generations as Ostenso did.  “Wild Geese” only describes the children growing and taking flight.  “O River, Remember!” tells the tale of several generations with one man, the gentle and moral Ivar, who lives for a century, as the axle.  But again, there is a strand of “artistic” and nonconforming Irish entwined with the clever, thrifty and sometimes avaricious Norwegian wife of Ivar.  Thus it takes up the problem of all frontiers:  how to take advantage of the new start and get ahead -- even how to recognize the opportunities which vary from quick strike-it-rich gambles to the steady tenacity of plowing -- without losing the values and ethnic identity of the previous stable ancestors.  Ostenso is part of a cloud of witnesses, often female and on both sides of the 49th parallel, who observe the risks of creativity when it is conformity that will make you rich and respected.

But Ostenso was not set free by her prosperity and success, even though she had what seems to have been a true marriage of hearts, lots of money, big prizes, famous friends.  Norwegian genes -- indeed northern European genes distributed by those busy bees the Vikings -- can carry susceptibility to both depression and alcoholism.  As a shield, some resort to the wife’s (Magdali’s) strictly ordered life and abstinence.  Even my paternal grandmother took this path, though it didn’t make the family wealthy except for that Brandon blip.  The potential for the rearing up -- from within the genome -- of that dragon-prow of love of chaos, creativity, and wild flight from the family is always there.  The stay-at-homes did not row on Viking ships -- it was their taste for adventure that hooked the Irish and came with them to the North American prairies.

The most striking image in “O River, Remember!” is an immigrant group who somehow have developed a ritual as they travel.  Though there are wagons, they walk, holding onto one long rope and singing all the old familiar songs.  Twice, arrivals on Ivar’s land are heralded by sound before sight:  one is this group and the other is Metis, the deafening squeal of Red River carts, for this is the river’s name.  Sing it!

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