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Reviewed by Joe Wiebe
In spite of its strange title, The Goat Lady’s Daughter is an entertaining and interesting novel set on the Sunshine Coast in the 1960s and ‘70s. Sechelt writer Rosella Leslie’s first novel offers a glimpse of a rustic lifestyle that once was common on the B.C. coast but has since all but disappeared.
The Goat Lady of the title is Mag Larson, a crusty old curmudgeon who lives with her sister Florrie in a secluded cabin in Serpent Cove, 25 nautical miles north of Sechelt. The sisters were born in Norway, but immigrated to Canada as children with their parents. The family settled on the rugged B.C. coast and built a life for themselves out of the wilderness. Five or six decades later, Mag and Florrie continue to follow virtually the same pioneer lifestyle as their parents before them.
While Mag is as irascible as Margaret Laurence’s Hagar Shipley, Florrie is soft and simple—she rarely ventures outside the cabin, but does all the cooking while Mag takes care of the physical labour that sustains them. They raise goats for milk and cheese, and chickens for eggs and meat. Mag also hunts, combs the coast for stray logs that have escaped their giant booms, harvests mushrooms and cascara (a natural laxative indigenous to the coast that she calls “shitty bark”), and sets traps for furs in the winter, selling those commodities in town.
In the opening chapter, Mag checks on a nearby float home and finds its occupants, a young “hippie” mother and her infant daughter, nearly dead. She takes the mother to the hospital in Sechelt, leaving the baby with Florrie to nurse back to health. After recovering, however, the mother disappears, leaving the two old women to raise her baby. Florrie, who had children of her own in her youth but lost them to “the Welfare,” happily adopts the girl, naming her Jen. Mag is much more reluctant about their new parenting roles, but as Jen grows up in their household, a grudging bond develops between them.
Although occasionally this story veers into overly earnest and sentimental territory, it has a page-turning quality that is difficult to resist. Leslie paints a detailed portrait of life on the Sunshine Coast that is both educative and interesting. She also draws some very memorable characters here, especially wily old Mag Larson, who will stay with readers long after they have finished.
Joe Wiebe is a Vancouver writer who recently completed
his first novel, a literary baseball story called Mudville.
Copyright © Joe Wiebe. All rights reserved.