Urquhart's story unfolds in the words of a present day entomologist Liz Crane who is studying the migration of Monarch butterflies at Sanctuary Research Centre. Living in the family farmhouse in Essex County, surrounded by memories and mementos of the "great-greats", Liz reflects on childhood summers spent with her cousin Mandy. She mourns a triple loss - Mandy's death in military conflict in Afghanistan, the accidental death of a teenage boy who had been her first love and the demise of the Butler apple orchard. The plot begins to blossom with the introduction of Liz's charismatic uncle, Stanley Butler.
" My uncle was a dynamic man, an experimenter, a risk-taker, always pulling the new into a traditional world, wanting to be the first to grow an exotic crop, use innovative equipment, employ the science of chemical farming, build new structures.... He who came of age in this county when the second growth of trees was entering its lush maturity, and the pastures, fields, flocks, and herds were fed and cared for, and the children educated and inoculated, might have spent his days watching everything he admired grow old and irrelevant around him had his vibrancy not caused him to lean toward change."
|James Charles (J.C.) McGuigan|
"He tried out new varieties of plums, cherries, apples and grapes; and peaches that were, according to family tradition, brought back from Kentucky by his uncle.
Mr. McGuigan bought 300 acres of cattails and marshland when the Burke drainage scheme opened the Erieau marshes to agricultural production. Seventy-five Harwich Township acres acquired in the early 1920s were planted with apples to supply the British market, under the Stirling brand name."
In Urquhart's book, the Butlers have developed varieties of fruit that bear the family name and are a source of great pride, even after the heirloom trees have been ripped out and replaced with McIntosh.
"Varieties of apples were identified by the Old World locations they'd come from or, now and then, the New World spots where they were first grown: St. Lawrence, Northern Spy, Hubbardston Nonesuch, King of Tompkins County, or the famous Butler Light, named for the lighthouse-keeping side of our own family."
During the 1930s, great-great Uncle J.C. developed the McGuigan peach, a variety that was patented and became a favourite for canning. Like the Butler clan, my own family (mother, grand-mother and great-grandmother) loved to recount the story of this achievement, usually while slicing fruit to fill a pie or add to a batch of jam. Other sources of pride that fleshed out McGuigan tales included a matched team of Belgian horses awarded ribbons at the Royal Winter Fair and the construction of a handsome fieldstone Arts and Crafts style house in Cedar Springs. The house, now a Harwich Twp. Designated Heritage Property, is still in the McGuigan family.
Fieldstones are an enduring family marker in "Sanctuary Line" as well.
"The first harvest every year is boulders," was the news they passed down to us, their lazy descendants. My uncle repeated this statement often, though there was little enough ploughing in his life. In the end, he told us, many of the fieldstones had gone into the building of this capacious farmhouse that has stood in its place, firm and strong, since the middle of the prosperous nineteenth century when it was built."
The solid Butler house is a durable symbol that contrasts rows of bunkhouses where the crew of migratory Mexican labourers stayed during the harvest season. Though central to the plot, the workers are always in the background, occupying a space physically and psychologically removed from the action and intrigue of the Butler family. Temporary hired hands were as transitory as the Monarch butterflies that Liz studies.
"Always in the orchards and fields, clothed in various shades of cotton like a multicoloured crop, their movements were as dependable and overlooked as the dance of vegetation under the touch of an indifferent wind. What had they been thinking? What secret pleasures or sorrows did they keep close to their hearts as they bent down to the ground or reached up to the branch, over and over, filling the waiting baskets? They did all this through the long summer days, while we ran, or swam or read, or hung our doll clothes out to dry."
|Japanese workers on the McGuigan farm, 1943|
(Virgil McGuigan, back right)
- photo from Nikkei Museum, Yamaura collection
The next generation orchardist, Virgil Gladstone (V.G.) McGuigan - eldest son of J.C.- headed the farm during World War II years. In 1943, when harvest time arrived and labour was scarce, he hired a crew of Japanese workers who, under a Canadian government relocation plan, were moved to Ontario from B.C. internment camps. The 1,000 acre experimental farm became a testing ground for chemical weed killers. Workers picked, sorted and packed fruit and vegetables and sprayed herbicides on the fields. Crops included apples, peaches, cherries, plums, strawberries, onions, corn, carrots, tomatoes and tobacco. The Japanese workers remained on the McGuigan farm for six years before returning to B.C. They were never welcomed into the community or encouraged to stay; in 1944 Chatham-Kent municipal council passed a ruling that prohibited Japanese labourers from settling in the area.
|David Yamaura driving a tractor on the McGuigan farm, 1944|
-photo from Nikkei Museum, Yamaura collection
The Butler family has its own dark undercurrent that threatens the stability of their legacy. I won't give away the details of the crisis - suffice it to say that Uncle Stanley's transgression leads to a tragic incident with long-lasting consequences. Liz sums up the family's demise in a way that allows room for the unexplained.
"When I was in graduate school and was first told about the tagging of the monarchs, I considered the whole notion of fixing adhesive to something as fragile as a butterfly's wing to be barbarous. But now I myself am a tagger, a labeller, one who is driven to track down the last mysterious fact until there is no mystery left. Yet I cannot explain how something as real and as settled as my uncle's world - which was also our world - could shatter in one night. And while I might partly understand why he vanished, it is not possible for me to determine where he has gone."
Urquhart's novel "Sanctuary Line" is full of longing, not just for the revival of a glorious past, but for clarity, understanding and acceptance of the present. By the end of the last chapter, I can almost taste those ripe, juicy McGuigan peaches.