________________ CM . . . . Volume VI Number 15 . . . . March 31, 2000

cover Susanna Moodie: A Life.

Michael Peterman.
Toronto, ON: ECW Press, 1999.
178 pp., pbk, $14.95.
ISBN 1-55022-318-6.

Subject Headings:
Moodie, Susanna, 1803-1885-Biography.
Authors, Canadian (English)-19th century-Biography.

Grades 8 and up / Ages 13 and up.
Review by Mary Thomas.

*** /4


While her husband was thus engaged [in attempting to find an affordable farm in the vicinity of Coburg], Susanna endured her "unpleasant" residence in the crowded "house of public entertainment" as best she could. With leisure and conveniences available to her but often alone with Katie [her baby daughter] while John was farm-hunting, she found herself "daily yielding up my whole heart and soul to that worst of all maladies, homesickness". Her mood was such that she was too lonely and dejected to engage in new writing. "Memory," she told a female friend, "is my worst companion; for by constantly recalling scenes of past happiness, she renders me discontented with the present, and hopeless of the future, and it will require all your kind sympathy to reconcile me to Canada."
The name Susanna Moodie has become synonymous with pioneering life in early Canada. Much has been written by her, about her, and based on her life and writings, and so it was interesting to read what the back cover claims is "the first critical biography of Susanna Moodie." "Biography" it surely is. It takes us from Susanna's birth in 1803 to her death in 1885, from her well educated, genteel, but impoverished childhood through her early success as a writer in England, her marriage to John Moodie in 1831, their emigration to Upper Canada and their life in various domiciles there. Most of the material for the biography comes from Susanna's own writings, and so it is perhaps not surprising that "adulatory" seems a more appropriate adjective than "critical" to apply to this work. We rarely see our own faults with as clear an eye as we see those of others! In Susanna's case, this tendency is compounded since some of her life story is in fact written in the third person as a novel, leading one to suspect that the line between fact and fiction in her mind and her writings was perhaps not firmly drawn. Also, she wrote for money. This is not reprehensible - there would be many fewer books written if they were all done for the love of a perfect phrase - but, since she needed the money, she wrote with one eye on what would sell. So Roughing It in the Bush was a tale of difficulties overcome, and talent, especially of the literary variety, unappreciated. And then she was upset that people in Canada didn't much care for, or buy, her book!

It is also interesting to realize that Roughing it in the Bush, her best known work, was written a good ten years after she had moved to Belleville following her husband's appointment as sheriff of Hastings County. Though parts of the book had been previously published, on the whole, it was a retrospective look at her life as it had been. Their first home in Canada was not in the bush at all, but on an already cleared farm that John Moodie bought, but then, through a series of bad judgments and worse advice, decided to give up. They then moved to the tract of land away from the river near where Susanna's sister, Catherine Parr Traill, had settled with her husband, and that had been their original destination. If Moodie had been a more astute man, they might never have roughed it in the bush at all!

The book, itself, is very short, and it covers a long life. Therefore, it hasn't space for the longer excerpts from Susanna's books and letters - especially letters - which might have added a bit of zip to this well documented, competent, but basically rather dull, account. In some ways one gets a better feel for the personality of Susanna Moodie by reading Margaret Atwood's collection of poems (The Journals of Susanna Moodie, Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1970). They have fewer facts, but more sparkle.

Recommended with Reservations.

Mary Thomas works in two different elementary school libraries in Winnipeg but was raised in southern Ontario not far from Moodie country.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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ISSN 1201-9364