A single mother. An abandoned farmhouse. An epic battle with the northern wilderness.
Broke and desperate, Molly Bannister accepts the ironclad condition laid down in her great-aunt’s will: to receive her inheritance, Molly must spend one year in an abandoned, off-the-grid farmhouse in the remote backwoods of northern Alberta. If she does, she will be able to sell the farm and fund her four-year-old daughter’s badly needed medical treatment.
With grim determination, Molly teaches herself basic homesteading skills. But her greatest perils come from the brutal wilderness itself, from blizzards to grizzly bears. Will she and her child survive the savage winter? Will she outsmart the idealist young farmer who would thwart her plan to sell the farm? Not only their financial future, but their very lives are at stake. Only the journal written by Molly's courageous great-aunt, the land’s original homesteader, inspires her to struggle on.
About the author
Elinor Florence is an author and journalist whose career spans five provinces, from editing daily newspapers, including the Winnipeg Sun, to writing for Reader’s Digest Canada, and publishing her own award-winning community newspaper. Her historical novel Bird’s Eye View is a Canadian bestseller. Elinor grew up on a Saskatchewan farm and now lives in the mountain resort town of Invermere, British Columbia.
- Commended, Dewey Divas and the Dudes Winter 2018 Pick
Excerpt: Wildwood (by (author) Elinor Florence)
I turned my back for a minute, and she was gone.
Of course, mothers always say that when their children are missing.
How many times had I seen weeping parents on television, assuring the world that they hadn’t been careless? How many times had I assumed they were lying?
But not in this case. Bridget had been within my reach — if not a minute ago, then definitely not more than five minutes.
I saw her through the open door, sitting on the back steps playing with her kitten, Fizzy, just before I opened the oven in the old cook stove, pulled out an unappetizing tuna casserole, and set it on the counter.
When I turned around, she wasn’t there.
At the time I wasn’t worried, not in the least. It never crossed my mind that she would leave the sanctity of the steps. I walked to the open doorway. “Bridget, come inside for supper!”
Although we had been here for a month, I still felt a sense of wonder at seeing the wild, majestic landscape that surrounded us. The sun was high on this northern summer evening, shedding its molten radiance on the overgrown yard, the long grass mingled with brightly coloured weeds and wildflowers, the cool air fresh with the scent of resin.
Stepping back inside, I pumped two glasses of icy well water using the green hand pump over the enamel sink and set them on the table before calling again. “Bridget!”
Had she slipped back inside without my noticing? I stopped and listened, but the old house was silent. There was no sound but the call of an unseen songbird from the windbreak at the edge of the yard.
She must be in the toilet. I went down the path and around the corner of the barn to the biffy, built of small vertical logs, now grey and weathered, flanked by a couple of huge lilacs. The toilet door hung lopsidedly on leather hinges.
She wasn’t there.
“Yoo-hoo! Bridget, where are you?” I walked over to the log barn, its double doors fastened shut with a piece of bone like a skeleton’s finger. The catch was too high for a four-year-old to reach, so I didn’t open them.
Beside the barn was an old log cabin, my great-aunt’s first home. I poked my head inside. The squirrels had been busy in here, and there was a pile of leaves and twigs in one corner, but the cabin was empty.
“Bridget, come out right now! If you’re joking, it isn’t funny!”
That’s when I felt the first flicker of fear.
Surely she wouldn’t have gone down to the creek by herself.
I dashed across the backyard and through the knee-high grass toward the creek. The poplars, their green leaves already tinged with gold, shook their branches in the breeze as if trying to frighten me away.
In contrast, the creek moved slowly and dreamily through the fragrant silver willows and bulrushes lining the banks. Along both sides, ferns leaned into the flowing water, their feathery fronds streaming out behind them like human hair.
“Bridget!” My voice was rising now, matched by the mounting panic in my chest.
The creek made a lazy curve before it widened into a large pond. At the far end was a beaver dam, a small fortress of branches and mud as high as my head. The pond looked like a dark-blue mirror lying in the green grass, a few fluffy cloud reflections floating on the still surface.
There was no sign of her.
Running back to the house, I reassured myself that I would find her waiting inside. I sprang through the back door, but the kitchen was empty. The cooling casserole looked less appealing than ever.
I flew up the stairs to the second floor. She wasn’t in the front bedroom where we slept, nor was she hiding in any of the unused rooms. I could tell by the layer of dust on the staircase leading to the third floor attic that she hadn’t been there.
She must be outside, but where? I vaulted down the stairs again, through the kitchen, and out the back door.
“What’s the matter?” Wynona’s low voice startled me. I whirled to find our new friend from the nearby reserve standing beside the steps.
“Wynona! Did you see Bridget when you came down the driveway?”
She shook her head silently.
I moaned aloud, turning in all directions as I tried to decide where to look next. “I can’t find her! She’s disappeared!”
Wynona’s face was impassive. “I can help you look.”
“I don’t know where to start! She never leaves the yard. She hardly lets me out of her sight!”
“Did you check the other buildings?”
“Yes. She isn’t even big enough to open the barn doors!”
“Maybe she fell asleep in the grass.” She pointed to the wild, overgrown garden. “You look over there, and I’ll walk around behind the barn.”
Although Wynona was only twelve years old, I felt slightly comforted. Why hadn’t I thought of that? Bridget was probably tired from playing outside in the fresh air all day. It wasn’t very long since she had stopped taking her afternoon nap. Surely it was only yesterday that she had been a tiny baby in my arms!
I waded through the jungly garden area, and looked under the row of poplar and spruce trees that marked the eastern edge of the yard. There were flattened patches of grass below the trees where the deer often slept, but these were empty.
Running to the opening in the windbreak, I took another look down the long driveway that divided the grain field. The wheat had been cut down on both sides, leaving nothing behind but ankle-high golden stubble. There was nowhere to hide.
Now I felt a spurt of anger. If she were playing a trick on me, I swore that I would punish her for the very first time in her short life for giving me such an awful scare.
As I ran back toward the house, I heard a faint call. “Over here!”
Wynona had found her! I tore around the side of the barn, my knees weak with relief, but I didn’t see my precious daughter. Wynona was standing at the western edge of the yard beside a row of old wooden granaries, their red paint peeling and faded.
As I came panting up to her, she pointed at the wall of forest behind them.
“I think she went into the bush.”
The only forest I had ever seen — the sparse ponderosa pines of northern Arizona — was quite different from this dense boreal forest. The leafy poplars with their gleaming narrow white trunks grew as straight as power poles while they fought for elbow room with the tall, pointed spruce trees. Woven in and around them was a tangled mass of underbrush, forming a thick stockade.
I stared at it, shaking my head in denial. There was no way that my timid daughter would venture into such a forbidding place.
“What makes you think so?”
Wynona didn’t speak, she simply gestured. There was a slight track through the tall grass leading toward the trees, no more than a disturbance, as if a small animal had moved through it recently.
Or a small child.
The sense of place is palpable in this book. In some ways, the setting is the main character because Molly spends so much of her time and herculean efforts reacting to and dealing with the brutal climate. Much of the dramatic tension in the book comes from the danger provided by environment in remotest Northern Canada.
Artfully melds the past and present for a story about homesteading. Likable characters deal with realistic, hair-raising scares and find hard-earned rewards in the wilderness.
What a glorious novel! With flawed and relatable characters, gorgeous description, and a loving but realistic look at a difficult lifestyle, Wildwood satisfies on every level. Through Molly’s modern eyes, we see the fortitude of pioneers in a refreshing way — and see our comfortable and rushed lives in a new way as well. Uplifting and thought-provoking, this is a novel to savor.
Sarah Sundin, award-winning author of The Sea Before Us and the Waves of Freedom series
The plucky single mother heroine of Wildwood survives extreme weather, wildlife, and rural, off-the-grid isolation in northern Alberta to tell a charming and inspiring story that charts her transformation from milquetoast urban accountant to empowered, self-sufficient farmwoman. Also heartwarming: the old-timey baking – recipes included – and the touch of romance.
Kim Moritsugu, author of The Oakdale Dinner Club
Elinor Florence’s Wildwood is one of those rare books you linger over the final pages of with melancholy, not wanting her poignant story to end. A well-written, well-researched portrayal of pioneering in the Peace Country with vivid intriguing characters who commune with the earth and are healed by nature.
Corinne Jeffery, bestselling author of the Understanding Ursula trilogy
A delight from start to finish and it offers a fascinating look at homesteading in the Peace River region.
Susan Juby, award-winning author of The Republic of Dirt
A wonderful read.
Lost in the Rain
Reads like a love letter — from a mother to her daughter, from a Canadian to her land, from an author to her ancestors. In Molly Bannister, Elinor Florence has created a modern day Susanna Moodie roughing it in the Northern Alberta bush. The result is riveting, packed full of all the best stuff — peril, mystery, wisdom, laughs, and love.
Angie Abdou, author of In Case I Go
Wildwood satisfies on every level … Uplifting and thought-provoking, this is a novel to savor.
Sarah Sundin’s Book Beat
Offer this to city slickers dreaming of a simpler life and readers interested in unspoiled natural beauty.
Taking this journey with Molly was exciting and delightful.
A warm and realistic portrait of Alberta’s Peace country.
Edmonton Prime Times
The description of the settings — the house, the land, the cold, the wild, the forests and animals are astounding and certainly gives the reader a sense of place. The characters just came alive on the pages and there is so much growth in the characters of Molly, Bridget and Winona.
Red Deer Advocate
Elinor Florence’s love and respect for the ‘beautiful savage land’ of northern Alberta comes through loud and clear. Follow Molly and her great-aunt on their homesteading adventures and risk losing your heart to the wilds!
Alice Zorn, author of Five Roses
Molly’s experience of her great-aunt’s way of life is so vividly described that readers will appreciate the strength and courage of past generations and feel grateful for the safeties and conveniences of modern life. The book will have particular appeal to readers interested in early-20th-century social history.
Wildwood not only captures the quintessential Canadian struggle against the elements with extraordinary energy, it illuminates what lies in the marrow of life: love, legacy, and the spirit to endure. This is homesteading with high stakes, and Molly Bannister is a heroine who pulls us into her heart and takes us on a journey into our own notions of resilience and courage.
Jennifer Manuel, author of The Heaviness of Things That Float
An escape into the untamed north.Since I read more thrillers these days, Wildwood was a little detour from my “who-dunnit” page-turners. I picked this one up because I liked the premise of the novel; living off the grid is something that appeals to me very much (for like a weekend maybe). Wildwood was a much needed escape into the quiet, haunting Canadian north – a year long journey into the harsh northern landscape and one single mother’s determination to survive.
Molly’s resourcefulness and determination are what hooked me, it kept me reading. It reminded me of how strong I had to be at certain times in my own life and how I dug deep to find strength. Sometimes I wonder just where that strength came from. My father told me once (and I’ll never forget it) “You have no idea how strong you really are.” It’s something that has kept me going far too many times than I care to admit.
Even though after reading the first few chapters I knew how Wildwood would end, Elinor Florence sketched a beautiful story of quiet determination. The picturesque landscape comes to life and season after season, Molly learns to fend for herself with no running water or electricity. She grows in ways she never thought possible. Florence also weaves modern concerns into this novel and tackles issues such as fracking and indigenous topics that are present in the media right now.
Through a journal Molly finds in her aunt’s house, we are taken back in time and learn about the struggles of our early settlers. This brings me to another thing I loved about the novel, The House. I spent a lot of time thinking about that house, with all its untouched treasures – frozen in time. When I was living in Northern Ontario, I’d often see abandoned houses and I’d be itching to have a look inside.
I know, I know… there are many things I loved about the novel – but my absolute favorite parts were when Molly spent time in the kitchen. Reading her baking adventures brought back wonderful memories of my own. Not only as a child watching my mother bake but my own trials and errors with eggs and flour. There is absolutely nothing more satisfying than making something from scratch! Old cookbooks fascinate me, and I have quite the little collection. I love the ones that have hand written recipes in them or little notes in the margin so every time Molly took out her worn cookbook, I wanted to get into my kitchen as well.
It’s a wonderful read, so I suggest a cup of your favorite beverage along with a comfy place to read and you’ll be ready to escape into the pages of Elinor Florence’s Wildwood.