Review of The Road Between by Florence Bell Ore (Raven, 2011)
Ruts in a country road, stretching out through yellow prairie grass to distant blue mountains beckon the reader from the cover illustration of Florence Bell Ore’s brave and affecting memoir, The Road Between. A sturdy gate punctuates the path which takes the reader into the 1930s and 1940s in Alberta, Canada and into the life of a young girl whose world is woven of three cultures: her English family working as missionaries on the Blackfoot Reserve; her Blackfoot neighbors and fellow children of the prairie; and the Canadian citizens in the nearby town of Gleichen and the city of the region, Calgary.
This childhood and young adulthood is not typical in any way because of the juxtaposition of cultures and Florence Ore’s “between-ness” among them. With her family, Florence is given the expectations of proper behavior for a young lady and schooling designed to lead her to a life patterned in English manners and morals. With respect and love, she honestly presents the human sides of her relatives. They also feel the conundrum of adapting old patterns to new expectations.
In the native culture, she sees another form of community. Blackfoot children living in Old Sun School were taken from their homes to be educated in Canadian culture and the Christian religion, leaving them bereft of their family traditions and stories. The girls continued a tenuous hold on their own ways as they crafted beaded belts and headbands, weaving the old and the new together to form their own society. As Florence vacillates between braiding her hair the way the Blackfoot girls do and wearing English ringlets, the dichotomy is clear. Florence’s Uncle Jack, the serious and sympathetic principal and minister, confided in her, “I sometimes think they have the right idea after all.” These words resonated with Florence’s feelings while watching the clash of two cultures.
The Canadian landscape underlies all of the lives described in this book. The wide, wild reaches of Alberta affect the discoveries and connections of the various peoples dwelling there. An evocative description, characteristic of Florence Ore’s beautiful writing, captures its sense. “My new world stretched from the Rocky Mountains, a pale blue ragged edge on the western horizon, east to where the land sloped endlessly down to the Atlantic. Above me spread the vast dome of sky. Lying on my back, watching an armada of cumulous clouds sail in the expanse of blue, the song of the meadowlark connected me to the earth and an awareness of the land and the world I lived in. Wherever I went this would be home.”
This book is a timepiece of the author’s unique life in the 1930s and 1940s. Her reflections and gem-like observations create the prism through which so many insights come. Her descriptions are so clear and personal that the reader is there. It is an unvarnished look at this time, with all its contradictions, and a respectful insight into the family and people of her life. Her young adulthood is not without challenge when her mother becomes single. Like her Indian neighbors, Florence is sent to a private girl’s school where she must integrate one more time into a new culture while holding on to an old one. Through the events and observations, the story speaks to the reader of the value and meaning of understanding and courage.
A closer look at the bright Van Gogh-like cover painting shows that this painting is also by the author, Florence Bell Ore, who paints in both words and picture. For me, her courageous remembering of the past gave a gift which clearly illustrated the power of memoir to bring understanding and meaning to the present.