February 27, 2012

Roughing It in the Bush by Susanna Moodie: Review

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In 1832, Englishwoman Susanna Moodie immigrated to Canada with her husband. He had big ideas; they were going to make their fortune in the backwoods of Canada. From the beginning, things do not go as planned. The ship takes longer than intended to cross the Atlantic and arrives in Quebec during a cholera epidemic. Throughout Roughing It in the Bush, a 500+ book she wrote 20 years later, Susanna chronicles their struggles as they encounter swindlers, bad neighbours, bears, terrible weather, ruined crops, fire, disease, while losing just about everything.

Right from the start, things between Susanna and I were rocky.

I had issues with Susanna's portrayal of the people she meets throughout the stories. She'll often make herself look better at the expense of others, particularly if they weren't British. She'll make sweeping statements about groups of people and when she meets someone who doesn't fit the mold she's created she says they are an exception. Right from the get go, she starts in on this. There is an incident as the ship they are on comes up the St Lawrence. She tells the reader how calmly she acts while her passenger mates, Scots, lost their senses. Earlier, she comments on the residents of Grosse Isle (a quarantined island), mostly Irish, as being drunken and immoral.

Susanna Moodie- judging you!
Later, she meets her new neighbours who hassle her constantly. These are American settlers. Instead of saying she has awful neighbours, she says her neighbours are Americans (or Yankees, she calls them) and therefore awful. It's hinted at that these people once owned the land and the tiny house the Moodies now occupy. They lost their farm because they could not pay their debts. Wouldn't that make them resentful of the new owners? She also criticizes the way they farmed the land. Considering how the Moodies had zero experience in farming and make a crappy job at it themselves, she's one to talk! Of course, that's not their fault. They were naive and taken advantage of by the wily Canadians.

The Canadians see an opportunity to take advantage of a situation and a couple of middle-class, wannabe farmers with money and not much sense is a golden one. I would have more sympathy for Susanna, if she weren't such a snob. It's like she just can't help herself. She's the Queen of the Backhanded Compliment. When she does have something nice to say, she nullifies it with 5 or 6 nasty things. The Canadian girls are pretty but their looks don't last, they're vain and proud. That sort of thing. No one escapes Susanna's judgement. Yet she remarks that people just aren't nice to her. Hm, I wonder why?

For a couple of chapters, Mr Moodie gives his take on things and it's a refreshing change. He gives a balanced account of their struggles when they first arrive in Canada. There are also some political issues neither mentions but are part of the historical record that add to their troubles. I wondered why Mr Moodie brought his bride, an educated daughter of a ruined landowner, with him. Wouldn't it have been better to have left her in England with family until he had things settled in their new country? They seem ill-prepared for even the smallest hardship. Susanna doesn't even know how to milk her own cow. Maybe she was so awful to everyone because she was just so miserable at that time. Or maybe that's just how she was. Even her sister Catharine felt her writing focused too much on her misery: 'Catharine observed in her sketch of the early life of Susanna that her sister’s imagination was “romantic, tinged with gloom and grandeur, rather than wit and humor.”' Source

Susanna has moments though. She writes lovingly of the scenery and about how awed she is by Canada. When she focuses her attention on her own family and herself, the story is very interesting. They were carving a life out of the Canadian wilderness at least trying anyway. Once the family gets into "the bush" Susanna, distracted by trying not to die, is easier to take. Their life becomes much more difficult. There are fires, malaria, tornado, the crops fail, and their debts climb. A little humility does her some good and she finally has a few nice things to say about people. Susanna herself was a complicated woman. For all her prejudices, she had a social conscience; she met her husband at an Anti-Slavery meeting. She speaks kindly of the native people, though she sees them more like intelligent pets.

Besides Susanna's attitude, I also had difficulty with her writing. It was all over the place. People would appear and disappear without explanation. She had the irritating habit of referring to people and places with a capital letter and a dash, common in 19th century writing yes, but she was inconsistent with it. Someone might be "B-" on one page and "Bob" on the next. It drove me bananas. I had moments where I didn't quite believe the things I was reading, they were beyond the limit of human patience. She was writing Roughing It in the Bush as a warning to other English people with thoughts of emigrating and because of that I wondered if she wasn't James Frey-ing things up to suit her purposes.

Still, with so few women writing about their day to day lives as pioneers, Roughing It in the Bush is a rare piece of history. I just wish it was written by someone else. And let me tell you I'm glad to be finished with it!

I do want to read her sister Catharine Parr Traill's book The Backwoods of Canada to compare their experiences in the Canadian wilderness. I'd also like to read Charlotte Gray's biography of the two ladies, Sisters in the Wilderness.


This was the first book for my personal challenge, Genteel Ladies in Foreign Lands.

11 comments :

  1. This definitely sounds like an interesting historical document, but yeah, I'm not sure if I want to read it :P It sounds like the biography might be far more enjoyable than the primary sources.

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  2. It sounds like she had quite a superiority complex. Kudos to you for sticking with the book.

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  3. I really want to read Sisters in the Wilderness. I have a copy and really enjoy Charlotte Gray's writing.

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    1. I haven't read any of her work yet but this might be the place to start.

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  4. Yowza...she's sounds a bit much.

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  5. I always waffle on books like this, because they do seem to represent the prejudices of the time, and I think that's worth understanding. But they also annoy the @#$% out of me in the process. Very good and thoughtful review, although I don't think I'll rush to read this one!

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    1. She had some views all right, not sure if everyone else shared them.

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  6. She sounds like a piece of work. The history may be interesting, but I don't think I could put up with her writing.

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  7. You might want to try Meetings With Mrs. Collins: Sketches of Life and Events on Montana's Open Range from the Diaries of Frontier Photographer Evelyn Cameron. Cameron was another English lady who traveled with her husband to the frontier, but she was pretty resourceful (even though her husband was a total Susanna Moodie type).

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