Man. producer writes what she knows

Canadian novels are rarely written about women who live in small towns.

Typically, the main character lives in Toronto and is a 38-year old, recently divorced executive at an advertising firm.

Or, she’s a 29-year-old doctor from Iraq forced to work as a hotel cleaner in Montreal.

Such stories are part of the Canadian experience, but they’re foreign to women who live on the Prairies in a town with 900 people.

“When I read books, I don’t see myself in fiction,” said Gaylene Dutchyshen, who lives in Gilbert Plains, Man., west of Dauphin.

“There aren’t stories about small Canadian communities…. We have full and rich lives, living in small communities…. You don’t have to live in New York City or even Toronto, to write a story about a family.”

In 2016, Dutchyshen filled the literary void.

She wrote a novel about farm women who live in the fictional community of Ross Prairie — a place much like Gilbert Plains. The novel, A Strange Kind of Comfort, was accepted for publication in the fall of 2018 and was officially launched in January.

“I decided I’m going to write a story about a woman just like me,” said Dutchyshen, who lives on a farm near Gilbert Plains.

“I wrote the novel because I felt the voices of prairie women are not often heard, their contributions unrecognized even though they were the glue that held families together.”

She didn’t wake up one morning and decide to write a novel about prairie women. She had wanted to write a book since she was a young girl.

Dutchyshen grew up on a farm in Manitoba’s Parkland, near Gilbert Plains, but her dad wasn’t a farmer. He was a teacher and rented out their quarter section of land.

As a kid and teenager in the 1960s and 1970s she liked to read mysteries, historical novels and classics like Little Women and Heidi.

‘I used to get books from the university extension library,” she said. “It was a service for rural kids. The books came in the mail in a big canvas bag. I loved when those books came and my mom tells me I would disappear for days after they arrived.”

In 1976, after graduating from high school, She left for Winnipeg and the University of Manitoba. She planned to become a teacher.

It didn’t work out as planned, as she didn’t finish her degree

In 1978, she returned home and married Wayne, a farmer from Gilbert Plains.

They had three children, Justin, Kristin and Kylie, and Dutchyshen became a stay-at-home mom.

That was a bit unusual in the 1980s and 1990s, when many farm women had part-time or full-time jobs.

“I feel I was one of the last of that generation of women who made my contribution by … raising the children and doing the canning and pickling and all that,” she said.

“Like women did in my mother’s generation.”

Wayne and Gaylene started out with 800 acres and increased the farm to 16,000 acres, running a grain and beef operation. They have since scaled back. They now have 9,000 acres and only 25 cows.

Between building up the farm, raising kids and volunteering in Gilbert Plains, Dutchyshen didn’t have a lot of time for personal interests.

But she never abandoned her dream of becoming an author.

She wrote short stories and entered them in contests.

She penned articles for the Western Producer and Manitoba Cooperator.

She also wrote stories for her kids.

In 2007, a couple of years after her youngest left home, Dutchyshen made a decision.

She moved to Winnipeg and returned to university at the age of 49 because she wanted to finish her arts degree.

While there, she took an advanced course in creative writing.

One of the stories she wrote in class was about a farm woman.

“That story was written about a woman who lived in 1954. She was a young farm wife,” Dutchyshen said. “At that point I realized my character had a lot bigger story to tell…. That’s how I started writing the novel.”

As she began to write her book, Dutchyshen made a wise decision.

She chose to write about something she understood — life in small-town Canada.

The book is set in Ross Prairie, a fictional town in Manitoba’s Parkland region.

It’s told through two female voices: Sarah Bilyk and Caroline Webb.

One of the main characters is Ukrainian and the other Anglo-Saxon.

That was a deliberate choice. Dutchyshen wanted to highlight that Ukrainian, English and Scottish immigrants came together to build prairie towns like Gilbert Plains and Dauphin.

As well, she wanted to share unique parts of Ukrainian culture, such as wax healing.

“I never saw that written about, so I really wanted to write about that,” she said.

Wax healing a type of folk medicine, in which a healer pours melted wax into a pot of cold water and interprets the shapes formed in the wax.

“These shapes may form into whatever the person is afraid of. It is a type of divining for the source of fears,” says an article from Wholife: the Wholeness and Wellness Journal of Saskatchewan.

After weaving such stories into a novel, Dutchyshen had to find a publisher.

Normally, getting a book published is harder than writing a novel, but she submitted her book to Dundurn Press of Toronto, which accepted it.

“They told me they were looking for a new prairie voice…. So the timing was right.”

An editor at Dundurn Press told Dutchyshen that she has a strong sense of place and effectively conveys the look and feel of prairie life.

“I describe how main street has changed. There is closed (businesses) and there is only one grocery store left in town. I just mention it in passing. But I wanted to (share) what it’s like to be in the Prairies.”

The title, A Strange Kind of Comfort, came after the book was accepted for publication. The editors at Dundurn Press and Dutchyshen grabbed the title from a line she wrote, early in the novel.

“They wanted to classify this as literary fiction. Once we chose it, I knew it was the perfect title.”

Dundurn Press, on its website, describes the book as a family drama.

“In the town of Ross Prairie, Caroline Webb and Sarah Bilyk are bound by family, duty, and a decades-old act of betrayal. On opposing sides of a long-simmering feud between their husbands’ families, the two women meet again after years of estrangement when Caroline moves into the same nursing home as Sarah’s father.”

It was highly satisfying to fulfill her childhood goal of becoming an author, but Dutchyshen is not done. She is working on a second novel, also set in Ross Prairie, and may write a third.

A Strange Kind of Comfort is available on amazon.ca, the Chapters-Indigo website and several bookstores, including McNally Robinson in Winnipeg.

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