A FEW years ago, Rita Jerram sat down and wrote a letter to the grandmother she'd never known.

Edith Jerram had grown up on a farm in Derbyshire. But in 1884, aged just 18, she'd sailed for Canada to join her fiancé William, who dreamed of owing his own farm in the wild prairie lands of British Colombia.

Rita herself was to grow up in the Derbyshire village her grandmother had left many years before. She never met Edith, who died just two weeks after Rita was born.

But when she visited her cousins in Vancouver, she was shown a copy of her grandmother's journals. She was enthralled.

Page after page of neat handwriting described Edith's often gruellingly hard life as a prairie pioneer.

"All around the neighbourhood for miles were empty deserted homesteads," her grandmother had written, early in her journal. "People had come with their little capital, built a house and started farming, full of hope - three crop failures in succession deprived them of all they possessed and they departed, dejected, broken."

Not Edith. She survived the death of four children and two husbands to make a life for herself in this land across the ocean. And to Rita - who, after a lifetime of globetrotting herself, now lives in Aldwark - she was an inspiration.

"Dear Grandma Jerram," she wrote, in that letter to the relative she'd never met. "I was very moved as I scanned your neat handwriting.

"Whilst in Canada I visited the prairie barn where you married him (William), and also saw many windswept cemeteries which bore testimony to the tragedies and hardships of those early pioneer days... I'm so glad you left a journal: you left a legacy that is both a history of that pioneer period, and also a testament of your spirit of adventure..."

So inspired was Rita by her grandmother's journals, in fact, that she decided to turn them into a book.

York Press:

Tales From a Prairie Journal is a collection of short stories, loosely based on Edith's journals but with a healthy dash of Rita's own imagination thrown in, that recreates the life of her extraordinary, pioneering grandmother.

And what a life it was. Edith lost three children to prairie fever, and a fourth who died at birth. Her first two husbands also died, and her third marriage was a disaster. She endured terrible loss, and conditions that would have made any modern person quail.

Yet she also got to know and love the wild open Canadian prairies, met the Native American tribes whose home they had been, took part in barn-topping parties and remote trading station weddings - and found, then lost, the love of her life.

Rita, now 77 and herself a keen letter writer, as well as a member of a local writing group, imagined following in her grandmother's footsteps.

In Waiting for William, she describes the 18-year-old Rita arriving at remote Blue River Halt, in the high Canadian prairies, to find no William waiting for her.

"With a hiss of steam and a screech of released brakes the 'Pacific Queen' pulled away," she writes. "I was left alone, a solitary figure on the deserted wooden platform...The prairie ...was empty, no sign of any habitation, no sight of man or beast, just an endless stretch of land. The midday sun shimmered ...I had never been so alone before."

Edith was aghast when she arrived at William's farmstead to find the home he'd prepared for them, Rita says: it was just a rough shed built of wooden logs. He had gone out to Canada before her, and had tried to persuade her not to come so soon - and it was clear why. There was another reason, too. "She found out that she had been quite close to losing him to a girl from Canada."

Nevertheless, William and Edith married - only for her to lose three young children, William, Tom and Lizzie, to prairie fever.

Devastated, she and William return to England where, back in Derbyshire, William got work as a farm labourer. They had two more children - one of them Rita's father, Stanley. But further tragedy was to strike. William turned to drink - and one summer's day, having been drinking beer all morning, fell from a newly-built haystack and broke his neck.

It marked another turning point in Edith's life. A friend back in Canada wrote saying there was a job going managing the remote Blue River Trading Station. Edith applied, got the job, and returned to Canada where, after she'd saved some money, her children joined her.

She spent the rest of her life there, running the trading post, then a lodging house, then working as housekeeper for a farmer whose wife had had a stroke.

She married twice more, to Mac, the love of her life, who was killed in the First World War, and finally to Art Dunning, a rodeo rider and cowboy many years her junior who was, Rita says, 'a mistake'.

That marriage broke down. Edith spent her final years on a plot of land at Lake Solitude, 80 miles or so from Vancouver.

Rita herself is in her late seventies now, a mother and grandmother who has lived all over the world, including Australia and Fiji.

But she still finds Edith an inspiration. "Long after your passing, you still remain very much alive in your granddaughter's heart and mind," she wrote, in that letter to her grandmother.

Now, thanks to Rita's book, Edith remains alive for many other readers, too.

  • Tales from a Prairie Journal by Rita Jerram is published by Stairwell Books and Fighting Cock Press in York, priced £10. The book is available from Stairwell (stairwellbooks.co.uk/html/bookshop.html) or can be ordered from local bookshops.