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Shelby, When Calls the Heart

When Calls the Heartis a T.V. historical drama based on a frontier town in Alberta in the early twentieth century. The drama follows the life of Elizabeth Thatcher, a young, elite, school teacher who travelled from Hamilton to have an adventure in the frontier, and Jack Thornton, a handsome, heroic North West Mounted Police officer. Their two lives become intertwined when the Mountie realizes that he was stationed in the small, middle of nowhere town, because Elizabeth’s wealthy father requested a Mountie be sent to the town his stubborn young daughter was moving to. The two main characters start off despising each other, before falling madly in love, and become the fairy-tale romance for the entire town, and viewers, to live vicariously through.

I am going to be honest, the show is cheesy, over the top, stereotypical, and flawed…yet somehow I have watched all five seasons in a very short time period. I have always had an affinity for the romanticized notion of the Wild West, no matter how flawed I now know it to be. Growing up, whenever I was allowed to watch television, I would watch Little House on the Prairie, and longed to one day live Laura’s life. I wanted to be that teacher in the single room school. I wanted to ride my horse to school, and stoke the fire before class. I wanted to be left with the sole task of teaching my students to become productive members of society. It all seemed so simple

So naturally, When Calls the Heartappealed to me. The young Canadian teacher, first teaching in a saloon (before her hero Mountie builds her a real school/church), and being allowed to teach in whatever way she deemed necessary to help her students, was tempting. When the harsh realities of the everyday struggle to stoke that fire, or ride through that snow storm, or teach without any guidance are ignored, life on the frontier looks pretty wonderful.

However, more about the show. The set is actually filmed near Vancouver, but the story is based near Robb, Alberta. If you don’t know where Robb is, that is okay. It is now a ghost town. Robb, Alberta was a part of the Alberta Coal Branch, which stretched into the foothills in West-Central Alberta. For a girl born and raised in Southern Alberta, When Calls the Heartadds relatable elements to the story. Occasional mentions of Lethbridge are given, as well as the jail in Medicine Hat where the heroic Mountie must deliver prisoners. The communities revolved around coal mining, and then forestry, and the transportation of the railroad. When Calls the Heartdepicts this accurately with the town originally being named Coal Valley. The town is renamed after a mining disaster leaves forty four dead, and closes the mine. The town, in its quintessentially romanticized style is renamed Hope Valley.

Hope Valley is small, but growing. Because the majority of the town’s men died in the coal mine disaster, the women begin running the community, and re-establish their lives as widows and single mothers. The town sees radical change, from a small horse and buggy coal town, to a growing, railroad and timber town, with the occasional car driving through. The show does an excellent job of depicting the fundamental changes that were happening so quickly for many of the Canadian frontier towns in the early twentieth century.

In a dramatic season finale, Jack Thornton tells Elizabeth of his decision to leave Coal Valley on a dangerous posting, while he also proposes to her. Jack is sent to the North West Territories, but no clear indication is given to where Jack actually ended up. However, constant reports of Mounties ambushed and killed resemble something closer to WWI fatalities, than Mounties patrolling the Klondike Gold Rush. In an even more dramatic (I didn’t think it was possible) episode, Jack returns safely, and Elizabeth and he are married.

The historical accuracy of the show has much to be desired. Elizabeth and Jack both frequently return to Hamilton to visit family, and the train ride across the entire country is seemingly covered in a day. Their clothes are much too stylish and perfect for a rural coal mining town. Not to mention the daily perfectly curled hairstyles, that I could not have even replicated on my wedding day. The Christmas episodes have green grass and no snow, which is hard to imagine in Central Alberta. A designer dress shop flourishes in the struggling coal town, and several bank robbers and money counterfeiters target the insignificant town (don’t worry, Jack catches them).

This show is worthy of discussing in a university history course, because it bridges the gap between the academic world, and the real world. It appeals to the hopeless romantic in all of us, and introduces viewers to the past. The plot line is fictional, but the small community feel along the Alberta Coal Branch is quite accurate. In 1969, Andy Otter published an article in the Alberta Historical Review which discussed the community life in the Alberta Coal Branch area. He wrote that these communities were small, close-knit, and reliant on, first the coal, second the railway, and third logging. This immediate dependence on the raw resources is shown in several desperate fights in When Calls the Heartto have the railroad come to Hope Valley, in starting a lumber yard, and finding investors for a crumbling bank.

As I write this blog post, I am slightly embarrassed. I am usually not such a sappy person, but historical dramas seem to suck me in. I’ll admit it, I cried when Jack proposed to Elizabeth, and I hurt for Elizabeth as she worried about her Jack in the North. I would argue that the historical drama genre is one of the most compelling ways in which non-history nerds can appreciate the importance of history. Even though there are many historical flaws, and the cheesiness is out of control, When Calls the Heartstill draws viewers into the everyday lives of rural, isolated, frontier town residents in a not so distant past.

By viewing the emotional aspects of history, we are better able to understand the current day issues that have arose out of them. Just as hearing the factual information of the 1903 Frank Slide are important, the true significance of the event is not grasped until you walk through the millions of tonnes of rubble, and hear the stories that have been recorded from it. Likewise, When Calls the Heartmakes the realities of a small frontier town into emotional and relatable facts of life today. Emotion is not a new phenomenon, it was felt 100 years ago. It was felt 1000 years ago, and academic history is often too good at removing it. The emotions and lifestyle of the everyday citizen in Ancient Greece, Mesopotamia, Machu Picchu, the American South, war weary Holland, and even 1910 central Alberta must be grappled with in order to fully understand the true value of history.

Bibliography:

Frank Slide Interpretive Center. Accessed April 10, 2018. http://history.alberta.ca/frankslide/

Kyba, Daniel and Jane Ross. Exploring the Historic Coal Branch: A Guide to Jasper's Front Ranges. Calgary, Alta: Rocky Mountain Books, 2001.

Otter, Andy A. den. "Social Life of a Mining Community: The Coal Branch." Alberta Historical Review 17, no. 4 (1969): 1-11.

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Sheila McManus

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University of Lethbridge

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