Sharing the Good Times: A History of Prairie Women’s Joys and Pleasures – HOLT (CSS)

HOLT, Faye Reineberg. Sharing the Good Times: A History of Prairie Women’s Joys and Pleasures. Calgary: Detselig Enterprises Ltd. 2000. 232p. Resenha de: HOFFMAN, George. Canadian Social Studies, v.37, n.2, 2003.

Sharing the Good Times is an interesting and useful contribution to prairie history for three reasons. Material from primary sources is presented on a number of topics related to the social history of prairie women. The photographs in the book are excellent. Sharing the Good Times is, in part, a photo history and, as the author notes in the introduction, photos do tell stories and catch a moment of truth. There is also an extensive list of secondary and archival sources at the end of the book which includes many references not found in standard bibliographical guides. This bibliography will be of considerable value to students of both western Canadian and women’s history.

The book contains ten chapters, and a particular theme is developed in each. In some instances the author identifies an individual and shows how aspects of her life relate to the theme. In other cases voices from the past address the theme directly through lengthy excerpts from memoirs, diaries, letters or interviews. For example, in the chapter entitled What About the Outer?, which concerns dress, fashion and hairstyle, readers are introduced to Dorothy Clark, who moved to Alberta in 1924 from Minneapolis where she had been trained in beauty culture. Clark became a hairdresser in Lethbridge and was soon using a marcelling iron for the short hair and waves which were popular hairstyles in the 1920s and 1930s. The author then refers to The Perfect Woman, a book which circulated in the Canadian west in the early 1900s. Several paragraphs recommending home remedies to women to help them attain what was considered the ideal of physical beauty at the time are quoted directly.

Most of Sharing the Good Times follows a similar pattern. Love Lights Shining, Women’s Culture, Women’s Lives and Sisterhood are examples of other chapter titles. Some of the events and the characters are well known, such as Nellie McClung, Ethel Catherwood, the Edmonton Grads and the All-American Girls’ Professional Baseball League; but most are ordinary people living normal lives at various times during western Canada’s past. The result is a considerable body of entertaining, interesting and historically significant information which can be used to think perceptively about western Canada’s cultural history.

There is, however, at least one problem with the book, and it relates to its central purpose. Faye Reineberg Holt argues in the introduction that too often in the past histories of prairie women concentrated on the difficulties of their lives, which she refers to as the negative part of life. Holt contends that the happy side also deserves to be told and that this book, as its title suggests, was written with that purpose in mind. From the perspective of the historian this is a curious and even dubious view. It raises a number of questions. Why did previous writers emphasize the hardships and sacrifices of women? Can the negative and positive sides of life be separated? Is it not possible to argue that many of the recollections of the women in Sharing the Good Times can be used to show the difficulties of life as easily as its joys? There are, for example, references to life on the frontier, pioneer experiences, depression and war in the book.

It seems to this reviewer that the author should simply have let the women tell their stories. These interesting accounts stand on their own; let the reader judge whether they are joyful or not. In the end what the women have to say is more complicated and difficult to interpret than the author suggests by her approach. When it was said that mothers of drought-stricken families in the prairie dust bowl of the 1930s maintained their senses of humour and enjoyed life, a wise person replied: yes, but sometimes it was necessary to laugh to keep from crying.

Sharing the Good Times could be used by high school teachers in History and Social Studies courses. It is written at a level which makes it readable for high school students. The nature of its subjects love, dating, honeymoons, fashions, sports undoubtedly interest teenagers. I recommend that teachers select women from these pages and use their words to bring the past alive and make it interesting for young students. Great historical events remain important, and many are referred to in this book, including the fur trade, the Riel Rebellions, the settlement of the west, the two world wars, the 1920s and the Great Depression. There is material in Sharing the Good Times which shows how the lives of ordinary prairie women were a part of those times. For many students that realization can give history personal meaning.

George Hoffman – History Department. University of Regina. Regina, Saskatchewan.

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