Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Lost in the Backwoods -Book Review Club #10

No, I haven't been lost myself! I stay out of the woods during hunting season, especially. But I have been reading about the past. Pioneer days, in fact. So often the forefathers made the headlines. They were the history makers. Or the war heroes who left their families behind.

The mothers were back in the woods feeding the family, chopping the firewood.

And Catherine Parr Traill and her sister wrote about it.

Catharine wrote this novel about Rice Lake. A wonderful spot. We had a grand time visiting nearby Port Hope! I now have a sense of the society of the time as it changed from backwoods, to towns and villages, then to heavily populated cities.

Their writing lives bore much fruit -  evolving from letters home in England to 'How to survive in the woods', to novels which are stories of the times.  These two sisters began writing children's books in England. As they emigrated both to Canada, and into adulthood they evolved into mature, well read, much published women. In their fight for survival in this rough land  they show the fabric from which our foremothers were made. (Photos from Wikipedia)

Susanna Moodie (left, b. 1803 - d. 1804; Roughing it in the Bush - on digital libary) and Catherine Parr Traill (1802 - 1899) were Sisters in the Wilderness*. Yet they lived far apart, poorly connected by trails. This is a familiar theme in Bala, Muskoka, in which the original Gibson Indians developed their land grants into the strong, well-crafted society that the Wahta Nation has become.

Published writers, the sisters moved from their genteel life in England, and their horror stricken families (women in their society did not write in those days!) to the impoverished, fragile life in the woods of Upper Canada in 1832, near what is now Peterborough, Ontario, where their brother, Samuel, was a surveyor.

Much of Canada was settled by the green pioneers who were anxious for government land, which wrenched by treaty from Native Peoples, and granted to soldiers and pioneers. I do not want to give too much of a history lesson, since the book presents a fabulous herstory, and the former is not my favourite genre! This historical fiction is an illuminating novel, obviously 'Lost in the Backwoods', in the time of colonization by folks unused to pioneer life.

The key for many writers is finding something about which to write. Imagine moving from high society in England, with all its pomp and circumstance, to living in a cabin, in poverty and the depression of 1836, relying on perseverance and survival tricks learned from Native Peoples. THIS story is another unwritten one. 

While this novel writes of 'savages' in the wilderness, these ladies surely understood that their life depended upon skills and knowledge gleaned from Six Nations wisdom shared with the settlers. The novel is filled with information from such sources. Despite the belittling terminology, the novel is filled with the obvious wisdom and admiration of the People's knowledge and skills. I am amazed by the misunderstood society aboriginal people had developed in a civilization that respected natural and human-made laws, society, nature, and women.

This is not a far-fetched plot, either, lost in the woods. In rereading stories I wrote down from my grandmother's mother, she told us that her mother would get lost in the forest when she was a child. I was told about the local Natives who would bring my great-grandmother back to their cabin in the woods, and happy parents, I am sure! 

This novel is also filled with Christian references, biblical quotes one can imagine Ms. Traill's family using in their close family. It includes language now out of current lexicon: 'chide'!
"And would not suffer her to be chidden."

Catharine's writing appears to reflect much of her personal life:

"Let not the youthful and more learned reader smile at the ignorance of the Canadian girl; she knew nothing of maps, and globes, and hemispheres, -her only book of study had been the Holy Scriptures, her only teacher a poor Highland soldier." (p. 70)

This novel also includes many explanations of backwoods life in which tools and equipment were fashioned, as she had been taught by her Native friends. To add to this, she includes the odd [Footnote] in which the common and Latin names of the flora that surrounded causes me to giggle. Her descriptions of the wildlife surpass any I have read, as she developed a necessary love and respect for the land and its creatures. A balance of the cycle of life she learned from pioneer living, the absolute fabric of our First Nations spirituality, is a respectful thread quilting together the fabric of life of the 'Indians' and the settlers.  The run-on sentences are a bit disconcerting, but, much like the portrayal of the period of the time, you begin to formulate an internal image of these women who bravely learned new skills, and left their old lives, china, servants and conveniences, for a new adventure.

Her writing style, in this reprinted book from Dodo Press, is fascinating. Think of Pride and Prejudice sewn into the forest, with the addition of grouse, partridge, sparrow and hawk.

"And often she paused to watch the angry movements of the red squirrel, as, with feathery tail erect, and sharp scolding note, he crossed their woodland path, and swiftly darting up the rugged bark of some neighbouring pine or hemlock, bade the intruders on his quiet haunts defiance; yet so bold in his indignation, he scarcely condescended to ascend beyond their reach. The long-continued, hollow tapping of the large red-headed woodpecker,  or the singular subterranean sound caused by the drumming of the partridge striking his wings upon his breast to woo his gentle  mate, and the soft whispering note of the little tree-creeper, as it flitted from one hemlock to another, collecting its food between the fissures of the bark, were among the few sounds that broke the noontide stillness of the woods; but to such sights and sound the lively Catharine and he cousin were not indifferent." (p. 8)

An entertaining read for me, as I attempt to envision Muskoka as it was before the settlers, townies and tourists!


Sisters in the Wilderness

At the beginning of Sisters in the Wilderness, Charlotte Gray discusses the way Catharine and Susanna have been portrayed — in both fiction and non-fiction.

Canadian Crusoes: A Tale of the Rice Lake Plains, the original title of Lost in the Backwoods, describs her new life in letters and journals, and collected these into The Backwoods of Canada (1836), which continues to be read as an important source of information about early Canada. She describes everyday life in the community, the relationship between Canadians, Americans, and natives, the climate, and local flora and fauna. She also collected information concerning the skills necessary for a new settler, published in The Female Emigrant's Guide (1854), later retitled The Canadian Settler's Guide. (--Wikipedia)

Sisters in the Wilderness DVD  - CBC Shop Online

Canadian Experience - Sisters in the Wilderness DVD. Charlotee Gray's book, brought to life!

A fabulous DVD, I showed a portion to my uOttawa student teachers while teaching Social Studies, as well as my Junior students. All enjoyed it!

Pride and Prejudice

Pride and Prejudice is a romance novel by Jane Austen. First published on 28 January 1813, it was her second published novel.

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@Barrie Summy


The Weaver of Grass said...

Really enjoyed this post, Jenn particularly as its subject matter was very similar to my post today. I often think that those early settlers must have been so tough - to go from a relatively easy life over here to totally unknown territory - exciting but very very hard. When ever I come to Canada I am very conscious of what the early settler s must have encountered. There would be incredible beauty but also incredible hardship.

kaye said...

sounds good, I do enjoy historical fiction. If you want to read my review of the Blue Star by Tony Earley it’s here.

Sarah Laurence said...

I love all your nature shots as illustration – we sometimes get Pileated Woodpeckers too. I am also avoiding the woods during deer hunting season. Canada sounds a lot like Maine. It’s interesting to have books like this from a woman’s perspective.

Kathy Holmes said...

Interesting - I'm a big history fan so books like this really appeal to me.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Lovely discussion of the women and the books. Thanks.

Barrie said...

Great review! I loved all the details and the photos. And I didn't know about the DVD!!!

pattinase (abbott) said...

A wonderful review that piques our interest in this era and this place. Thanks for doing such a bang-up job.

Sarahlynn said...

This sounds right up my alley: history I want to learn about + good writing and a good story. Thanks for the review!

Jenn Jilks said...

Thank you Patti & Sarahlynn. I love learning about a previous time and place this way. I know it's way too long a review. but I couldn't stop!