Grace Sparkes blazed a trail to independence
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 firstname.lastname@example.org