Canada Emptor: Susanna Moodie’s Roughing it in the Bush and the Early Immigrant Literature of the Great White North

“Home! The word had ceased to belong to my present it was doomed to live for ever in the past; for what emigrant ever regarded the country of his exile as his home?” – Susanna Moodie, Roughing it in the Bush (Chapter II)

[Picture of Susanna Moodie (collage by Charles Pachter; poem by Margaret Atwood)

As I’ve mentioned a few times, I spent the overwhelming bulk of my childhood growing up in the suburbs of Buffalo, New York. Now, people not from the area—especially non-Americans, understandably—often labor under misconceptions about what that means. When they hear “New York,” they, again with reason, automatically think of New York City, but as with the US itself, the state of New York is much bigger than many people even stateside realize. To wit, Buffalo is an over six hour highway drive from NYC, but less than two hours away from the city of Toronto in a separate country. And if you drive north instead of east, you’ll still technically hit Montréal before you hit Manhattan.

Anyway, what I’m getting at is that, culturally, Buffalo is a lot closer to Canada than it has ever been to the Big Apple. And I can hear our closest neighbors in Southern Ontario vehemently arguing with that statement all the way down here in Pittsburgh, but in my experience, it’s been true. I grew up watching Canadian basic cable and spending long weekends in Toronto, and Ontarians are the only Canadians I ever mistake for Americans (sorry, Ontarians) in my wider travels because they mostly just seem like fellow Buffalonians in the broad strokes. And as a result, I’ve probably spent more of my life thinking about Canada, particularly southern Ontario, more than I ever have about New York City, outside of the more obligatory aspects of American pop culture.

[Younger portrait of Susanna Moodie]

That said, despite attending a school where everyone’s post-prom plans involved crossing an international border, Canadian literature was not really a part of my lower-level education. In our defense, it’s only in the last fifty years or so that Canada itself has made a more concentrated effort to promote and study its own literature as something other than a less-exalted subgenre of English literature. Some of this is due to the general growth of what is usually umbrella-ed as Commonwealth Literature during the last half of the 20th century—that is, literature from the United Kingdom’s former colonies and the nations that still recognize the sovereign of England as their head of state. The rest is due to the rising international popularity of Canadian writers, especially Margaret Atwood (b. 1939). Atwood, in turn, writes a lot about Canada and Canadian identity. She is certainly not the only Canadian writer who does so—indeed, (white) Canadian authors are as obsessed with the question of what it means to be Canadian as American authors historically are with their own identity—but Atwood has been a major torchbearer for Canadian literature studies.

Non-Indigenous Canadian literature is in many ways a literature of opposition, which is perhaps humorous coming from a people who have an international reputation for non-confrontation. The native white writers are constantly grappling against forces that threaten to overwhelm them physically and/or culturally. White Canadians against non-white Canadians (historically, members of the First Nations; modernly, non-white global immigrants), white Canadians against Americans/American culture, Anglo-Canadians against French Canadians, but above all non-Indigenous Canadians against Canada itself. I would argue no white literary tradition is more profoundly shaped by its physical environment than Canadian literature, not even the mythical literature of the American West. Perhaps this is because a people’s literature is, at its heart, a record of its cultural subconscious, especially its anxieties. Americans love our cowboys and Manifest Destiny, but since the conquest of the American West is seen by the dominant culture as having been successful, its anxieties belong to the minority literature of the people who were subjugated, or arguably, women’s literature.

Conversely, Canadians never conquered Canada as the United States did to the Lower 48. According to the OECD, in a country that spans forty-two lines of latitude (the 41st to the 83rd), 95% of the population still lives beneath more than half of that (i.e., below the 55th parallel)—with some four-fifths of that number living less than a hundred miles of the US-Canadian border (OECD. 2014. pp. 142) and half of those people living in what is referred to as the Québec City-Windsor Corridor. The Corridor, as it is more colloquially known, is a 1,150-kilometer (710 mi) strip between the province of Québec’s eponymous city and the city of Windsor in southwest Ontario (abutting Detroit) where over 18 million of Canada’s ~37 million people live (per the 2016 census).

[The Corridor (in red)]

All of this a lot of numbers to say that the idea of the “dark wilderness” that occupies eighteenth and early nineteenth century American literature continues to have a place in contemporary Canadian literature, where so much of the modern nation is still virtually uninhabited, if not totally unexplored. White Canadians writing about Canada in any way have trouble ignoring this cultural bête noir, where the Unknown lurks in vast, dark, cold forests outside of the thin strip of “civilization.” Aside from large apex predators like wolves and bears, the Canadian forests were also home to a vibrant Indigenous folklore that was as alien to European emigrants as the landscape. Traditional white fears of “going native” melded with a uniquely Canadian-born fear of literally being metamorphosed by the hostile environment around them. Francophone colonists brought werewolf lore with them from France and loup-garous were soon stalking the Canadian forests along the infamous Wendigos of the First Nations peoples, both creatures one could become or otherwise submerged into. Colonial Canadian literature in particular is more Heart of Darkness than Little House on the Prairie, and even when it’s trying to emulate the triumphalism of American pioneer literature, there is always the uneasy current of destabilization just below the surface.

[To reference one of the few Canadian authors I did have to read in K-12 (Robert Service, pictured above), what I’m saying is that Yankee Sam McGee isn’t the only one struggling with the Yukon…]

Nowhere is this perhaps more evident than in the literature of Susanna Strickland Moodie (1803-85), one of the earliest Anglo-Canadian writers and as a result, one of the few Canadian authors who was routinely required reading for young Canadian students before the advent of Peggy Atwood. Moodie, who emigrated as an adult to Canada from Britain in the 1830s with her husband and eldest child, would help shape the original English settler narratives about life in what was at the time the colony of Upper Canada, alongside her sister, Catharine Parr Strickland Traill (1802-99).

[Upper Canada (in orange) in relation to modern Canada (pink)]

The Stricklands were originally from Suffolk, England, and although their family was of a solidly middle-class background, their father, Thomas, clearly valued learning highly and saw that his five daughters were given similar educations to his two sons. They gained modest fame as a literary family, where all but two of the Strickland children would become published authors in their lifetimes. The women—Agnes, Jane, Catharine, and Susanna—wrote in a variety of genres, but usually stuck to the ones considered the most “respectable” by an England on the cusp of the Victorian era: moralistic novels, children’s stories, and popular histories. Most of Moodie’s, as well as Traill’s, broader oeuvre has gone the way of many of the sentimental novels of their time, but as the two sisters who left England for Canada, their Canadian-centric works would have a much longer shelf life. This is in part because even where the sisters’ literary style perhaps hasn’t worn particularly well (it really is a question of one’s personal tolerance for full-throated Victorian poetry and general prose verbosity), their memoirs and guides about the early days of the Anglo-Canadian frontier became invaluable historical records. This is made all the clearer because the individual tastes and personalities of the sisters also means we have two fairly different accounts of what life in the Corridor was like at its inception. Because, contrary to what you might have been picturing (or indeed, I always lose sight of), the dark wilderness of Moodie and Traill is not the barren Yukon of Jack London and Robert Service—it’s Southern Ontario.

[This part of it, to be exact]

Traill wrote several settler’s guides and a well-respected survey of Canadian wildflowers, all of which leaned into what is usually characterized as her more practical and “scientific” view of Canadian pioneer life. But there’s a reason that Atwood chose Moodie’s memoirs, especially the earliest, Roughing it in the Bush (1852) as the basis for her own ethereal, stream-of-conscious poetry collection. If Traill wrote some of the first quintessential Canadian literature, Moodie arguably wrote the first anti-Canadian Canadian literature. Because let’s get something straight here before we talk more about Roughing It: to this day, and despite her protests to the contrary later in life, I’m pretty sure no one has ever hated Canada, Canadians, and Southern Ontario in particular more than Susanna Moodie.

[And I say that as a person whose hockey team’s Reddit page has a specific flair for hating the Toronto Maple Leafs (whether a post actually involves the Leafs or not)…]

As I implied above, your mileage on Moodie’s writing may vary, but what certainty doesn’t get lost across two centuries of changing tastes is her almost total lack of cope for life on any frontier, let alone what was the edge of the world as she knew it. When life had straightened out for her family after eight years of living in what she called “the bush” in Douro Township (slightly north of Peterborough in my red Corridor circle above) and they relocated to the town of Belleville (also in that circle), Moodie could afford to be a little more philosophical. She claimed that she was trying to warn other people of her social class as to the difficulties they would encounter away from the convenience of life in England, to combat the rosy propaganda of speculators trying to lure younger sons and military veterans out to the colonies. As the following quote from her introduction to the third edition of Roughing It explains, “They told of lands yielding forty bushels to the acre, but they said nothing of the years when these lands, with the most careful cultivation, would barely return fifteen; when rust and smut, engendered by the vicinity of damp over-hang-ing woods, would blast the fruits of the poor emigrant’s labour, and almost deprive him of bread. They talked of log houses to be raised in a single day, by the generous exertions of friends and neighbours, but they never ventured upon a picture of the disgusting scenes of riot and low debauchery exhibited during the raising, or upon a description of the dwellings when raised dens of dirt and misery, which would, in many instances, be shamed by an English pig-sty.”

And I’m not even saying that her complaints were completely unjustified—I probably wouldn’t have fared much better under the circumstances. They almost burn alive in their crappy log cabin (twice), there’s always a reason their crops fail, and she has to get hyped for trying to convince you that ground dandelion roots taste just like real coffee. But we’re also talking about a woman who didn’t know how to keep a house without domestic help being thrown out into the Canadian wilderness, and Moodie is not someone who comes across in her writing as a person with an innate love of adventure who would’ve enjoyed that.

[Moodie was also an accomplished painter. Here is a study she made of those dandelions she was forced to grow so fond of.]

You can tell this about her in part because there is someone in her memoirs about whom you get that impression: her husband John Moodie. One of those aforementioned military vets from the Napoleonic Wars, John Moodie spent the decade between the Battle of Waterloo and his marriage to Susanna Strickland living on a farm he’d bought with his brothers in South Africa. He talks about this in a string of chapters dropped on the reader of Roughing It with no prior warning from Susanna that she’s about to change narrators. While this seems to be almost a punishment on John—where he has to explain why they ended up emigrating Canada and the circumstances of several bungled financial transactions he made once they arrived that led to them becoming nearly destitute—he also talks about these years in South Africa with deep fondness. Indeed, I think he meant to go back until he met Susanna on a visit to England, and he describes with a lot of gentle humor how she was terrified at the mere thought of African wildlife and refused to emigrate to Africa, but was talked into Canada.

[Spoiler alert: she hated the bears and wolves almost as much as elephants (sketch by Margaret Atwood for the first edition of her poetry collection The Journals of Susanna Moodie)]

Vast swaths of Roughing It are devoted to describing in exhaustive detail how awful the Moodies’ neighbors are, be they thieving, carpetbagging Yankees from south of the border; surly, freeloading Irishmen; or sassy, working-class girls being raised with nothing resembling Victorian femininity. When the backwoods people of Ontario aren’t stealing literally everything not nailed down in their house, Moodie is complaining that a neighbor who was helping them out by letting one of Susanna’s daughters live with them temporarily is making the girl “uppity” and spoiling her for a life of unrelenting pioneer toiling. Surprisingly enough for the era, Moodie has a vastly better opinion of the indigenous people still living in the area than she does of the settlers. Granted, her praise is definitely of the paternalistic “noble savage” variety (she calls the Ontarian tribes “Nature’s gentlemen”), and she has a 19th century white woman’s horror of miscegenation (she thinks of the biracial children of white men and native women as having the worst traits of both races). But after literal hundreds of pages on how dreadful her white neighbors are, her just calling indigenous people ugly seems pretty benign in comparison.

In short, Roughing It is like a compendium of all the Little House books where everything goes completely sideways on the Ingallses/Wilders (let’s say, By the Banks of Plum Creek, The Long Winter, and The First Four Years), without all of the plucky adventure/self-reliance, anti-New Dealer subtext that was meant to convince Americans that grinding poverty was okay as long as you had your freedom from Big Government. Moodie doesn’t glamorize pioneer life, and she’s the first to admit she’s not really built for it by upbringing or temperament. Aside from the bears, werewolves, and Wendigos, Moodie spends half of her eight years of homesteading too afraid of cows to milk one, and she’d never done laundry before she arrived in the New World.

But she isn’t so tunnel-visioned not to understand that some of this isn’t about her. Almost every time she launches into one of her various homesick laments about England (like the one in my flavor text), she will amend it with a statement about how Canada will never quite be her home, but that’s okay because the Moodies emigrated for the sake of their children’s futures, not their own. When she takes a break from her bitching to praise Canada’s great natural beauty, or its almost boundless future potential that she saw very presciently, she’s grateful for the sake of a people and a nation whose official birth was still a decade away. She might lament that the Canadian wilderness stole her youth and her looks, but Susanna Moodie’s revenge is that she can insult Canada to its face and the country still has to venerate her as one of its founding literary giants. Who wendigoed whom?

[Susanna Moodie (collage by Charles Pachter)]
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