French-Canadian soldier, Napoleon, proposes to Lea during WWI, promising golden fields of wheat as far as the eye can see. After the armistice, he sends money for her passage, and she journeys far from her family and the conveniences of a modern country to join him on a homestead in Saskatchewan. There, she works hard to build their dream of a prospering farm, clearing fields alongside her husband through several pregnancies and even after suffering a terrible loss. When the stock market crashes in ’29, the prairies are stricken by a long and abysmal drought. Thrown into poverty, she struggles to survive in a world where work is scarce, death is abundant, and hope dwindles. Will she and her family survive the Great Depression?
After Lea swallowed the last sip of her soup, she settled herself on the main deck, finding a seat as near to the window as possible. Tucking her suitcase under her legs, she glanced about to see how crowded the ferry was. If there weren’t too many people, she might have the entire row of seats to herself, a safeguard from lonely men looking for company. She relaxed when an old woman made herself comfortable beside her.
As they sailed away, the land behind them diminished, the greens fading to misty pale blues that disappeared into the haze. She watched the faint line grow thinner until water surrounded the vessel, lapping against the hull, only gray sky visible beyond. Lea’s pulse quickened as she remembered her mother’s worries. Could there still be U-boats left that haven’t heard the Armistice has been signed? No! Nap said it’s official—the war’s over, and if he says so, then I believe him. To convince herself of his words, she pulled out the stack of letters from her bag that he’d sent over the past year and filed through them until she found the one she was looking for. My dearest Lea, I’m sorry I haven’t been by to see you for some time. You see, I wasn’t given leave, though we’ve been stationed close to Chatlineau a few times. We’ve been transporting POWs back to Germany from France and Belgium now that the armistice has been signed. You’d think it’d be easy work, but it’s not. It’s quite sad, really. These men are so thin and broken, and I worry, even though they’re the enemy, that they may not survive. My comrades say I shouldn’t concern myself after all the atrocities the Germans have committed, but aren’t all men equal? Weren’t they serving their country the same as we were? Don’t they have mothers and fathers who love them too? Yesterday, I spoke to a German who told me, in broken French, that hehad a wife and a four-year-old daughter waiting for him back home. I wonder if they’ll find him changed, the way his hands tremble and the way he starts at the slightest sound. He’s ahaunted man. We weren’t the only ones hurt. It’s a terrible thing war, where decent men are forced to kill each other because of decisions made by political leaders. One of our boys told me a touching story the other day. He said that one Christmas, the Allies near Vimy Ridge heard the Germans singing ‘Silent Night’. They were so moved, they joined in. Can you imagine? Germans and Allies singing together, each in their own language? Then a magical thing happened. Slowly, they all came out of the trenches, shook hands, showed pictures of their girls. Some even cried together. Others shared what small portions of food they’d received from back home. Then someone pulled out a ball, and they began playing soccer. Can you imagine? Soccer! But it all ended when they heard gunshot in the distance. Their brief Christmas was over. It was business as usual. They shook hands and then lowered themselves back down into the muck of the trenches and resumed shooting. My eyes fill with tears at the thought. What a terrible thing to befriend and kill your enemy on the same day. But there is one good thing that has come from this war, my beautiful Lea, and that’s you. As I sat in the mud-filled, rat-infested trenches before the armistice, it was you who kept me going. I could survive the cold and damp, the trench foot, and the lack of food just by filling my mind with thoughts of you, your beautiful blue eyes, your dark hair, your charming accent. It gave me something to hope for—a future. As always, I love you,Nap
Lea let out a sigh. Her little Napoleon! She never grew tired of reading his letters! At first his correspondence had related the latest news, but as they got to know one another—be it live or through mail—he began leaving small hints, choice words that indicated they might have a life together! The day came when Lea received a short note saying he’d drop by that night, that he had something important on his mind to discuss with her.
“I think this is it,” Lea had said to Mathilde in an excited whisper.
“What?” asked Mathilde, folding dried bed sheets, still checking for the telltale signs of lice—a slight blood stain—though many months had passed since the soldiers had spent the night.
“Napoleon is coming—tonight!”
“Yes, and I think he may ask me to marry him!” Her sister’s mouth dropped.
“Marry him! You can’t be serious. You barely know him! He’s only been here a few times to see you.”
“Yes, but we’ve been writing back and forth. I know him well enough. He’s the kindest man I’ve ever met. He’s funny, he’s sweet, and besides, I would like to see these golden fields and blue skies he talks about.”
“But you don’t know what’ll happen between now and then. You could be a widow with a baby.”
Lea mulled her words over. It was true. She’d known three of the town’s girls who’d been furlough brides only to lose their husbands a few months later on the front.
“You can’t rush into these things,” said Mathilde. “And what if you marry him and then don’t fit into his world. Remember, you’re Belgian. And he’s asking you to move to Canada, an untamed country.”
Lea weighed the consequences of her decision, then replied. “Yes, but I love him.”
“But Lea...” Mathilde dug her hands into her hips and gave her a condescending look. A timid knock at the front door brought an abrupt end to the conversation.
“It can’t be him already!” whispered Lea. She pinched her cheeks and bit her lips.
Her sister did a quick fold of the sheets and shoved them into the cupboard while Lea smoothed out her dress.
Papa opened the door.
Napoleon stood on the steps in full uniform, his chest pushed out. He reached up, took off his hat and smiled. “Good day, Monsieur Decorte.”
Papa turned and shot Lea an amused hint of smile. “Lea. Are you in the mood for Mr. de Montigny’s company? Or are you too tired today?” Without waiting for an answer, he said, “I think she’s too tired.” He made as if to close the door.
Lea rushed forward before her beau had time to flee from Papa’s wry sense of humour. “Of course I have time for Napoleon. Come in, come in.” She grabbed his arm and dragged him to the sofa where they sat side by side holding hands.
Napoleon looked uncertain. No wonder! After what Papa just put him through.
They made small talk until dinner was served. When they sat down to eat, he barely touched the fish and potatoes Maman had prepared, wiping his forehead over and over again with his napkin and taking sips of water as though his mouth were dry.
When the dishes were washed and placed in the cupboard, Lea led him to the sofa again while everyone conveniently disappeared except Papa who made an occasional entrance to cast a wary eye on the couple.
“So the war is over now and as soon as we’re done transporting the POWs, I’ll likely be discharged,” Napoleon said after the older man left the room for the second time.
“Oh?” said Lea.
Nap cleared his throat. “Yes, and then I’ll be going home to Canada. I’ll join my father and brothers in Saskatchewan.”
Lea moved closer, hoping for an arm to encircle her. “I’ll miss you.”
“As I will you.” He slid his hand over her shoulder only to remove it again when Maman wandered in and began polishing the silverware.
Lea flashed her an impatient glare, but Maman ignored it and continued rubbing the cutlery until every individual piece shone before leaving.
“Tell me more about Saskatchewan. Have you applied to the government for your homestead yet?” She loved pronouncing the English word. It seemed so worldly.
“No, not yet. I’ll do that when I get home.” Napoleon’s face paled. “But I...I...I was wondering if...”
Papa sauntered in and began sweeping the floor.
Napoleon let out a frustrated sigh and then changed the subject. “We’ve been lucky with the weather, haven’t we?”
“Yes, indeed,” replied Lea, throwing an angry look at her father.
Papa pushed crumbs into the dustpan and poured it into the trashcan, oblivious.
“It’d be nice to go for a picnic,” suggested Lea.
“Ah, yes, it would. We could pick up a baguette from the boulangerie, then take it to the park.”
“That would be lovely.” The grandfather clock that stood in the corner of the room chimed. Ten o’clock.
“And we could get some fromage bleu too,” she added. It was getting late. If Maman and Papa didn’t leave them alone, Nap would never propose.
Papa cleared his throat and eyed Lea.
Lea hurled him a desperate glare, the effect obviously not working because he dragged a chair to the grandfather clock and began winding it.
On seeing his actions, Napoleon took in a sharp breath and stood up. “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize it was so late. I should be going.”
Lea’s heart fell. Her lips pressed together in a tight line as she walked Napoleon to the door.
He squeezed her shoulders, and cast a glance toward Papa, before saying, “I’ll be back as soon as I can. Maybe in a couple of weeks.” He kissed her cheek, then retreated into the night.
Suzanne de Montigny loved writing stories as a child, creating her first novella at the age of twelve. She has kept it on her shelf between her textbooks and novels all her life. As an adult, she pursued a career in music education, teaching school for twenty years. It was there she discovered she had a knack for storytelling. When her father passed away in 2006, she developed an overpowering urge to begin writing again. She has received awards for her “Shadow of the Unicorn” series and her young teen novel,A Town Bewitched. She lives in Burnaby, B.C. with the four loves of her life, her husband, her two boys, and Buddy the bichon frisé.