A perfect book to read right now, when shadows are lengthening so early in the day: the air is crisp, our hands thawed by warm breath that hangs in a cloud before dissipating. These days, I can easily imagine Beatrice, “huddled under a pile of buffalo robes” (1) as we first meet her. I have never lived in the prairies, being from the mountains of BC, but Buffie’s descriptions are so vivid that I can see Beatrice’s world, and Cassandra’s more modern version, and feel the difference between the two eras they lived in. I am not by nature adept at creating images from descriptive texts; I generally get a strong feeling for characters in books, but have a problem visualizing their settings. I recognize this as a failing in my role as reader, and am thus overjoyed when an author’s descriptions are effective enough for me to really see the world she creates.
Buffie’s setting carries her carefully designed plot along with it; her ability to intertwine her modern realist stories with the paranormal connections that are the vehicle for growth and learning does not seem to wane. As in her other stories, in Winter Shadows emotional support comes to Cassandra through discovering the truth of Beatrice’s life. Cass is facing the first Christmas with a new step-mother and annoying younger step-sister; she feels betrayed by her father, abandoned by her dead mother, righteous in her anger, and justified in her acting out. While we do not necessarily agree with her—from an adult perspective—we can see why she feels and does what she does… Teen readers would undoubtedly not only sympathize, but empathize with her position, her attitude, and her behaviour. Buffie contrasts Cass’s modern familial problems with those of a young Métis girl, Beatrice, in 1856. Beatrice has returned from school in the East to St. Cuthbert’s, Manitoba, to live with her father and his new wife, Ivy. Ivy, like Cass’s new stepmother, Jean, does not share a culture with her new husband. Beatrice calls her “puritanical” (20), and certainly she has no love of—let alone respect for—Native cultures, including Métis. Beatrice’s story is presented as a combination of conflicts: she suffers both as a daughter with a new step-mother, and as a Métis who loves her grandmother and her culture, yet sees it denigrated by many in her community, including her step-mother. Cass, living in her ancestral home that was also Beatrice’s, begins to see visions of Beatrice’s life, as Beatrice does of Cass. The connection between the two young women causes both of them to doubt not only their sanity, at some level, but also their instinctive emotional responses to their world. Learning of the cultural and social prejudices with which Beatrice suffers helps Cass to put her own problems into perspective; seeing visions of the comparatively strong and emancipated Cass helps Beatrice to stand strong in the choices she has to make.
Layered beneath her plot, Buffie has created a narrative of mid-nineteenth-century Métis culture that is part of a resurgence of and thus growing interest in the Métis historical narrative. Another admirable author in this vein is Jacqueline Guest, whose Belle of Batoche (2004) and Outcasts of River Falls (2012) are more straight-forward historical narratives of Canadian Métis life. I’m not sure if there are others, but these three novels speak strongly to the need for the Métis narrative to be told, to be reconstructed in a way that provides ready access for modern young readers. Winter Shadows, with its combination of carefully researched history and language, and Buffie’s as-always insightful interpretation of modern youth and the issues they face, is for me the perfect combination of reality and metaphor, modernity and paranormal history. While I do not love (understand? identify with? appreciate?) Cass as much as I do Frances Rain, I believe Cass speaks as strongly to young girls today as Frances Rain did almost 25 years ago.