Wednesday 31 October 2012

Roughing it in the Bush

Susanna Moodie

Susanna Moodie is a classic Canadian writer, so it seemed only right that I should read some of her work for the Canadian Book Challenge – after all, my aim was to try and get as broad a view as possible of Canadian literature, and this will take me back to the 19th century. I wasn't sure where to start, but the beginning seemed pretty good, which is why I plumped for Roughing it in the Bush, which was the first book to be published after she emigrated – she had previously written children's books, which appeared in England.

Susanna, her husband John and their baby daughter moved to the backwoods of Ontario in 1832, and 'Roughing it in the Bush', published 20 years later, describes the trials and tribulations of their early years. Her account, based on the journals she kept, is interspersed with her poetry (which I didn't like) and is a little strange, because it could almost have been writen by two completely different people. She gives lovely, lively sketches in plain, simple language, with warmth, humour , compassion and, when things don't go well, a degree of irritation. But alongside that are florid patches of purple prose, filled with the kind of sentimentality that was popular with readers at the time of publication, but always makes me cringe. The poetry is similar in feel – and sense and meaning take second place to rigid rhymes and rhythms.

Fortunately, these overblown sections are in the minority, and the straight forward tale of life in the bush is fascinating and very readable. Initially Susanna was very homesick, but over the years she came to think of herself as a Canadian, and she wrote this book to warn the English upper and middle classes that while Canada was a land of opportunity, it was not somewhere where fortunes could be made at the drop of a hat. She used her own experiences to show that starting a new life called for hard work, and that gullible, inexperienced settlers could lose everything.

I didn't know what to expect from this at all, but I enjoyed it (apart from the poetry and the purple patches). Susanna comes across very clearly – she seems to have been an optimist, determined to make the best of any situation. She was surprisingly resourceful considering how different her new life was to what she had known before, and was willing to try her hand at anything. A devout Christian, she had a keen sense of right and wrong, tried to live her life according to her beliefs, and expected others to the same. She was humorous and compassionate, loved the beauties of nature, and was devoted to her family.

Moodie writes about the landscape, the weather, her neighbours (who seemed hell-bent on conning the newcomers) – and how she and her husband scraped a living from the land. The Moodies were not poor, and employed servants, but even so Susanna takes her share of household tasks, and I could only sympathise with her first unsuccessful effort at breadmaking, when she had to produce her own yeast from bran. And she was equally inept the first time she washed her baby's clothes, for the garments got no cleaner, but she removed the skin from her hands!

Her love of her family shines through. There's a wonderfully tender scene of Susanna and her husband canoeing, with two daughters at the bottom of the boat enchanted by the butterflies and demanding to pick waterlilies.

Set against moments like that are others which are far less peaceful. You can feel Susanna's fear as she listens to wolves howling in the wood one lonely night while her husband is away, and on another occasion she is terrified when the 'fallow' is being burned off (which I assume is burning the stubble), the fire gets out of hand, and only a sudden change of weather saves them from disaster and tragedy.

Gradually she learns how to survive in this new land, and the strange becomes familiar. She deals with sickness, dwindling finances, running a farm, creating a home with the few resources available, and providing meals for the 32 drunken men who attended 'logging bees' on their land to help fell wood.

While the Moodies did make some good and trusted friends, they had little in common with many of their neighbours, especially in the early days and, according to Susanna, people were determined to con them. She describes them as improvident Americans and Irish, uneducated, uncultured, and discourteous – worse than 'savages' she says. But her account of their behaviour and the way they 'borrowed' from her is very funny, and her description of their appearance and character is so detailed you feel you would know them if ever you met them – and would walk away as quickly as you could!

On the other hand, she had a lot of time for coloured people, and I get the impression this was fairly unusual at the time. She upbraids a woman who will not sit at table with a 'Black', and praises the Indians for their 'honesty and love of truth', although she finds the local tribes 'ugly' and 'not clever'. She tells us:

There never was a people more sensible of kindness or more grateful for any little act of benevolence exercised towards them. We met them with confidence, our dealings with them were conducted with the strictest integrity.

And she recognised the effect settlers had on the native population, who were now living in a reservation:

It is a melancholy truth, and deeply to be lamented, that the vicinity of European settlers has always produced a very demoralising effect upon the Indians.

Eventually the Moodies move on when Susanna's husband is appointed sheriff in another district, and the book ends with a series of appendices on Canada, outlining its geography, history, government and education, and explaining what life was like in the province.


  1. I confess I've not heard of Moodie, having lived in Canada for all these years. So, thanks so much for informing me a pioneer writer of our country. Just curious, what other Canadian writers will you be reading, or have read? I sure like to know more, and I can always learn something from coming here. :)

    1. Arti, Susanna Moodie is a fascinating character. I know practically nothing about Canadian literature and I'm really enjoying this challenge. If you click on the Canadian Book Challenge icon it will take you to the site which is packed with links to other people's book reviews. I've only read four so far - they are listed under the other icon on the sidebar, with links to my reviews. Next up is The Sisters Brothers, which I'm struggling with, and then Half Blood Blues.

  2. I've read this several times over the years, and your review says it well - quite an interesting lady. I may have to re-read & review this one myself, as well as something by her equally iconic sister, Catherine Parr Trail.

    1. I'd heard of Susanna, but didn't know about Catherine, until I looked Susanna up when I wrote this, and there was another sister Agnes Strickland, who Stayed in England and also wrote - most famous for Lives of the Queens of England apparently. And they had a brother Samuel, who emigrated to Canada before Susanna and he wrote about his experiences and seems to have become a key figure in the community - you probably know more than me! But what a family they must have been!