Grace Sparkes blazed a trail to in­de­pen­dence

The Compass - - OPINION - Bur­ton K. Janes bur­tonj@nfld.net

The key to un­der­stand­ing the life of Grace Mar­garet Pat­ten Sparkes (1908-2003) is em­bod­ied in the sub­ti­tle of a new bi­og­ra­phy of her: “Blaz­ing a trail to in­de­pen­dence.” She was, in many re­spects, a trail­blazer of an in­de­pen­dent in­cli­na­tion.

The au­thor, Marie-Beth Wright, says, “Grace is ad­mirable for the in­de­pen­dence, con­vic­tion, de­vo­tion, and de­ter­mi­na­tion she showed as a woman in the early twen­ti­eth century.” Ed­ward Roberts, in his fore­word to the book, adds, “She marched to the beat of her own drum and cared not whether oth­ers heard it or not. Feisty, prin­ci­pled, opin­ion­ated, and self-con­fi­dent, she had no hes­i­ta­tion in mak­ing her voice heard above the crowd.”

I wish I had known this Grand Bank na­tive, Grace Sparkes; now, the best I can do is read – and reread – Wright’s mas­ter­ful treat­ment of the lady.

She loved mu­sic, curl­ing and pol­i­tics. She made last­ing con­tri­bu­tions to ed­u­ca­tion. She ap­peared as Grandma Wal­cott on CBC TV’s “Tales from Pigeon Inlet,” writ­ten by the Co­ley’s Point na­tive, Ted Rus­sell (1904-77). She was a re­porter for the now-de­funct “Daily News.” In her later years, she did all within her power to bet­ter the lives of se­nior cit­i­zens through so­cial pro­grams. One might well ask rhetor­i­cally, What didn’t she do?

In re­sponse to my ques­tion about the lessons to be learned from such a trail­blazer, Wright says, “Don’t be swayed from your ob­jec­tives and be­liefs.”

Ad­mit­tedly, Sparkes re­ceived three tough blows in her 95 years. For starters, she lost her beloved fa­ther, J.B. Pat­ten, which led to the loss of her orig­i­nal ca­reer choice. Sec­ond, the loss of her coun­try, New­found­land, as the re­sult of its con­fed­er­a­tion with Canada. She was noth­ing if not fiercely an­tiCon­fed­er­ate. Fi­nally, the death of her hus­band, John Sparkes, which meant hav­ing to raise their only child, Doris, as a sin­gle par­ent.

“From this,” Wright ex­plains, “we can de­duce that she be­lieved God doesn’t give us any­thing we can’t han­dle; sweet are the virtues of ad­ver­sity.”

An­other les­son Wright dis­cerns from a study of Sparkes’ life is that “we must be agents for change, in govern­ment, ed­u­ca­tion and so­cial equal­ity.” She lived what she preached.

Sparkes was prac­ti­cal enough to re­al­ize that, in Wright’s words, “while there are in­grained chal­lenges for women, op­por­tu­nity is still out there to be seized. Con­versely, gen­der bias can­not be used as an ex­cuse for fail­ure.”

Sparkes’ in­flu­ence on many is far reach­ing and long last­ing. Even her bi­og­ra­pher has been sig­nif­i­cantly im­pacted.

“She makes it more com­pelling,” Wright states, “to put my­self out there on is­sues. I some­times hear her voice in my head and try to in­ter­nal­ize her phi­los­o­phy.”

Sparkes “touted the im­por­tance of mu­sic and singing.” So, Wright notes, she is a role model for her la Rose des vents, the choir of the Fran­co­phone com­mu­nity in this prov­ince.

To Wright’s credit, she re­fuses to san­i­tize her sub­ject’s life, pro­vid­ing in­stead what Ed­ward Roberts calls “a full ac­count of Grace Sparkes’ life, warts in­cluded.”

“Trail­blaz­ing, in­de­pen­dent women may be loath to take ad­vice from oth­ers, pre­fer­ring to keep their own coun­sel,” Wright sug­gests. Nev­er­the­less, both Sparkes and her bi­og­ra­pher “would ad­vise women to pick (their) bat­tle and do not aban­don it, whether it be gay rights, mu­nic­i­pal im­prove­ments, hold­ing the line on ed­u­ca­tional fund­ing, or im­prov­ing lan­guage rights.” Tak­ing Robert Frost’s well­known road “less trav­elled by” will re­sult in what Wright calls “to­tal bet­ter­ment, per­son­ally and for the greater so­ci­ety.”

A use­ful ap­pen­dix pro­vides a sam­pling of Sparkes’ pithy views on life.

• On ag­ing: “I re­ally don’t feel any dif­fer­ent (at 88) than I did at 48, or 68, or even at 28.”

• On writ­ing mem­oirs: “I’d miss my friends if I stayed home to write; then, too, I think to my­self, ‘Who’d read it?’ “

• On join­ing Canada: “We were bought with a rigged vote.”

• On the loss of coun­try: “It was so de­press­ing; it was al­most as if you had lost yourself.”

• On travel: “Con­ge­nial trav­el­ling com­pan­ions are the best part of any trip, or so I think.”

• On life it­self: “What is im­mor­tal­ity? We live in the things we have done and said.”

The in­clu­sion of more than 40 pho­to­graphs adds greatly to the use­ful­ness of the book, help­ing to set its sub­ject in her proper his­tor­i­cal con­text.

“Grace Sparkes: Blaz­ing a Trail to In­de­pen­dence” is pub­lished by Flanker Press, St. John’s.

— Bur­ton K. Janes lives in Bay Roberts. His col­umn ap­pears in The Com­pass ev­ery week. He can be reached at bur­tonj@nfld.net

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