Reviewed by Lesley Caple
As Canada will celebrates its 150th anniversary since Confederation, it is worth recalling the contributions of women who pioneered early Canadian literature. Nineteenth-century writer, Susanna Moodie, whose work has inspired Margaret Atwood and other Canadian authors in both poetry and prose, is one of these women.
Roughing It in the Bush by Susanna Moodie was first published in 1852 and chronicles the experiences of her family’s emigration to Canada from England and their first five years of settlement in Upper Canada from 1832 to 1837, in what is the present-day Cobourg area.
This book, published several times since 1852 (England) and 1871 (Canada) is likely the most well-known Canadian autobiography of frontier life in 1830s Ontario, penned by a new immigrant to our country. Evidence of the book’s enduring fascination to modern-day readers is the recent publication (April, 2016) of a Graphic Novel format by Second Story Press, created in collaboration by the late Carol Shields and Patrick Crowe, with an introduction by Margaret Atwood.
Mrs. Moodie, and her husband, a military officer, John Wedderburn Dunbar Moodie, arrive in Canada July of 1832 along with their new baby (the first of six children). Each chapter of Roughing It in the Bush is a vignette of this new life and the memorable people they encounter along the way. Peppered between each chapter is a poem by the author’s own hand. These poems, sometimes patriotic, demonstrate the author’s appreciation of nature and speak into the heart of Canadians of maple trees, paddles on moonlit lakes, and sleigh rides.
Susanna Moodie’s sketches of the family’s early years in Canada charmingly render the hopefulness of early settlers to an untamed land. They also paint a realistic picture of the difficulties encountered there. We read of the arduousness of clearing land, building log homes, and of farming in the sometimes uncooperative elements. Along the way, the family endured poverty, sickness and Ontario’s brutal winters.
In Roughing It in the Woods, we read tales of isolation, of friendship built between the Moodies and their Native neighbours, and of charity – given and received. Moodie tells of ventures by canoe on Lake Ontario as well as long hauls in winter sleighs and on foot, thereby giving the reader insight to her hard-earned patriotism to Canada. One chapter gives a chilling account of a fight to save their log home from fire in the middle of a sub-zero winter night. The need for keeping young children from freezing while she, her husband and neighbours battled the blaze with only buckets of snow, reminds us how vital was self-sufficiency and resourcefulness to 19th century Canadians’ survival in the wilderness.
Susanna Moodie’s account of her first years in Canada is rendered with humour and honesty. The difficulties encountered are told in a fashion that allows the reader insight into the Moodies’ idealism and subsequent realization of their perhaps foolhardy undertaking. Indeed, Mrs. Moodie writes that her intent was not simply to tell of early life in Canada, but to serve as a lesson to other idealists dreaming of making their fortunes in Canada that there will be great challenges to overcome.
Roughing It in the Bush is a fascinating read of an important piece of Canada’s history. It is a testament to the courage and fortitude of our early settlers. We feel pride alongside this adventuress as she achieves small household victories as well as victories of survival in Ontario’s harsh landscape.
Mrs. Moodie was a social activist, speaking out against slavery and other social injustices. Today, she would be described as a feminist. In the year 2016 when our attention is focused globally on political climates, it is a humbling experience, as a Canadian, to read the harrowing account of what it was like to focus on mere survival in this new country.
What Canadian’s heart would not puff with pride when reading these words:
“Canada! thou art a noble, free, and rising country – the great fostering mother of the orphans of civilisation. The offspring of Britain, thou must be great, and I will and do love thee, land of my adoption, and of my children’s birth; and, oh, dearer still to a mother’s heart – land of their graves!”
Roughing it in the Bush is published by the New Canadian Library.