“The writer is chasing 90, and still on the go. We conclude that prairie homesteading does not shorten life – one has to live!” — Raye Green, Prairie Pioneer Days, 1980
Bessie Raye Thompson Green (1890-1989) homesteaded in Saskatchewan, survived the Depression, ran rooming houses and worked in the garment industry in Vancouver in the 1940s and 1950s. Above all, Raye was a writer. From love letters in her teens to memoirs in her 80s-90s, Raye left behind a vast swathe of written material. Most of Raye’s writing was unpublished, and most of her large family knew nothing about it. Raye’s granddaughter, Gail Irvine, kept all of her Nanna’s personal items, but was daunted by looking at all of Raye’s photographs and writing. I helped Gail to organize Raye’s things. While doing this, I looked at Raye’s writing and was amazed at the wealth of information it contained. Thus began a fascinating structural / stylistic editing project — so that this writer’s family could finally hear about their Nanna’s eventful 99 years.
Bessie Raye Thompson was born in New Westminster in 1890. Raye’s parents, John Thompson and Maggie DeLong were originally from Ontario but spent most of their adult lives moving back and forth in the Canadian West. As Raye commented “they were rolling stones.”
My first focus in organizing and editing Raye’s writing was on her family histories. This gave me the opportunity to understand the family better and to use that knowledge while I was working on later aspects of her life. When in her 90s, Raye wrote her family stories, Thompson Family Story and The Walter Green Story. There was a lot of valuable information — all six drafts of it (each!) The drafts all contained different styles of writing and different pieces of information. Plus, there were loose papers with scribbled notes about family connections and names copied from family bibles. There were also numerous spreadsheets of genealogical data that Raye’s daughter Chris had collected back in the 1980s. I shaped all of this information into a more readable format.
I was also able to include some interesting extra materials. Raye had (helpfully!) done a timeline of her parent’s peripatetic life. She had also kept some unique mementos of her parents. There were old tin types from the 1880s, and dynamic photos from the 1920s. There was a letter from Raye’s father boasting about playing curling bonspiels in his 85th year. There was a school teaching reference letter stating her mother’s “force of character will make her an excellent disciplinarian.” All of these items helped to bring what could be a dry family history to life.
Prairie Pioneer Letters
After running a temperance hotel in Hartney MB and building houses in Carievale, Saskatchewan, Raye’s father decided to take homestead near Adanac Saskatchewan. She soon met neighbour Walter Glendenning Green — but was not impressed. A year later, they were firm friends, or something more, at least on Walter’s part. Between November 1907 – October 1911, Raye and Walter Green wrote almost every week. Raye kept all of these letters, plus letters from friends — to a total of almost 200 letters.
I had the fascinating opportunity to open each letter — still in its original envelope! — and be transported to another time period. I organized, read and transcribed all of the letters. Walter’s writing provided a challenge, as he wrote with a purely “phonetic” spelling and creative punctuation! The letters are now preserved in acid-free sleeves so that Raye’s family can read them, alongside the transcribed versions.
These prairie pioneer letters give a valuable glimpse into social life in early 1900s Saskatchewan and Alberta. We learn about the homesteader experience of farm and town life, dances, socials and sports. They are also a great read — vivid characters, gossip and a fair bit of romance! I hope that they can reach a wider audience someday.
Backward Glances from the Eagle Hills – a first attempt at writing
The earliest piece of Raye’s writing was a “fictional” account of the homesteading days, Backward Glances from the Eagle Hills. It appears that this could be a draft written in the 1930s. Pages were written on the backs of a Rawleigh Products company letter dated 1933, and on the back of a son’s spelling homework.
The writing seems both stilted and too flowery. The story begins thus: “It is a glorious spring day in 1933 as I stand on the summit of the Eagle Heights, just where the highway from Wilkie begins its descent to the plain below. To my mind, no Saskatchewan view is as lovely as the panorama which spreads before my eyes.” It continues in the voice of a young man who is joining his parents as they “toil” across the Battleford plains to find their homestead.
Romance momentarily intervenes when the narrator meets red-haired Joyce and her chicken: “As I jumped from my wagon, I almost landed on a feathery object which darted by my feet. ‘Must be a prairie chicken,’ I thought. Instinctively, I bent down to grab for it. Something else. A little gingham hurricane bent too. Bang! We both staggered back. I saw stars and there were tears in her hazel eyes beneath the red curls. But between us we held, she by the tail, I by the neck, a small speckled hen.” The story quickly forgets the love interest and goes back to dry details about prairie experiences. Backward Glances from the Eagle Hills filters off undramatically a few pages later.
Pioneer Prairie Days
Almost 60 years later, Raye later used many of the “Eagle Hills” experiences in her 1980 piece, Prairie Pioneer Days by a Pioneer. This piece was pure non-fiction — and a chatty and informative read. Raye’s writing style had matured since “Eagle Hills”. Prairie Pioneer Days starts a bang: “In the spring of 1905, soon after several North West Territories had been joined to make the province of Saskatchewan, vast tracks of land were thrown open for homesteads. The resulting land rush made history.”
It carries on single-spaced for 16 pages. It’s a rich resource for prairie historians. There’s information about entertainment (box socials and dances) and daily women’s chores such as milking cows, churning butter and baking cakes without eggs (substitute snow – when it melts it gives off steam that makes the cake rise!) There are fabulous details about the perils digging wells (“a grave danger was the deadly well gas”) and using strychnine to poison gophers. (“Whoever had time, often children then, went with a pail of the noxious mixture, and carefully put a large spoonful in every gopher hole they could find.”)
Prairie Pioneer Days was a valuable read — though not as it first appeared. The writer’s voice was strong and the grammar, spelling, mechanics were all fine. But — the piece was rather stream of consciousness and lacked any paragraphs or natural breaks. In some places, information appeared as it occurred to Raye, rather than in a logical flow. I structural edited this article into a more readable format, by adding paragraphs and headings.
Grassland to Grainland
Prairie Pioneer Days may have been Raye’s first attempts at articles for a local history of the Adanac Saskatchewan area. I discovered that Raye was a published author. She had contributed several articles to Grassland to Grainland (Historical Seven Book Committee, Unity, Saskatchewan, 1985). This book has been made available in digital format online at Our Roots: Canada’s Local Histories Online. Raye’s articles don’t really copy from Prairie Pioneer Days. The focus is more on prairie pioneer families and some amusing stories from the time period. The stories are nostalgic but very helpful for future researchers. I found the information about local settler families to be an extremely useful reference while reading Raye’s 1907-1911 letters.
Family histories and life on the prairies in the early 1900s — all of this writing had a light tone. It was now time to tackle the difficult task of writing her memoirs. The story really begins in January 1912, when Raye married Walter Glendenning Green. It was a real case of “for better and for worse.” Crop failure, farm loss, a daughter who died in a car accident, no food on the table during the Depression, a move to Vancouver where Raye ran boarding houses and struggled to make ends meet, while dealing a mentally ill son. And finally, “Green’s last stand” in 1960, when Raye finally got to buy her own little home.
Reading the memoirs was fascinating experience to see a writer at work — from initial concepts through to self-editing. Raye scribbled multiple drafts of notes on the backs of envelopes. She used pins to keep the pages together.
Each version of Raye’s memoirs had its merits. The earlier versions were written in a more natural voice. They contained person (often heartbreaking!) details about family troubles. She edited these details out from subsequent drafts. The later versions were more legible, organized and “polished” writing, yet at times seem a “whitewashed” version of the past intended for an audience. It seems clear that Raye intended her work to be published in some way. There are notes such as “you may wish to include” or “addendum”.
I worked through about six different drafts of the life story to make a single document that covers both Raye’s polished and descriptive writing, and some more details about her life from the earlier drafts. Decisions needed to be made about what to include — and what additional contextual information to add. I felt that the “full” story – as much as we had of it, should be included. I consulted with Raye’s granddaughter Gail Irvine and she agreed that this would help the family understand their grandmother’s – and their parents’ – lives.
I wanted to enhance her memoirs with other contextual information. I selected quotes from Prairie Pioneer Days to illustrate points about homesteading, and included selections from her vast collection of letters. In a few cases, I interviewed her grandchildren and added information about her son’s mental illness, and the family’s experiences of malnutrition and poverty during the depression. This latter aspect was not touched on at all by Raye.
This project also required some stylistic editing. Raye wrote in a mix of first and third person (such as calling herself Raye and her parents Mr. and Mrs. Thompson or John and Maggie). For consistency, I used first person voice and used “Father and Mother”. Raye’s grammar and punctuation were extremely good (probably had it drilled into her by her school teacher mother!) but she wrote in stream of consciousness, with no paragraphs to separate the subjects. She also had a habit of omitting articles and starting sentences with a verb. Where necessary, I corrected these.
What was the result of this “mega” editing project? Well, I learned a lot – about the writer, the family, history of the prairie homesteaders. I also found that structural editing came naturally, and was enjoyable. I’ve been able to make Raye’s stories accessible to Raye’s grandchildren. Reading the stories was a first experience for many to learn their family history and to gain a greater understanding of their grandmother’s life. The project also help to strengthen family bonds. Granddaughter Gail Irvine has said “Our family has always been close, but Stephanie’s interpretation of our history confirmed our desire and intent to preserve our connection.”