Thursday, August 17, 2017

BOOK: Susanna Moodie: Roughing it in the Bush by Carol Shields and Patrick Crowe

Susanna Moodie: Roughing it in the Bush by Carol Shields and Patrick Crowe, 140 p

History done in graphic novel form is a great way to get a taste of a person or situation. Susanna Moodie is a famous Canadian settler who wrote about life as a settler in the back woods of Ontario in the early 1800s. Her sister, Catharine Parr Traill also wrote a book about pioneering. Roughing it in the Bush was actually Moodie's response to what she felt was a romanticized book by her sister.

Before she died in 2003, Carol Shields had begun collaborating with Patrick Crowe on a screenplay about Susanna Moodie. Crowe recently resurrected the writing and put it into graphic novel form, with illustrations by Selena Goulding. The book I thought I was looking for was the criticism Susanna Moodie: Vision and Voice by Shields, but I'm so glad I found this graphic novel instead.

To add to the complete female badassness of this book, Margaret Atwood writes the introduction. It was Atwood who, in 1970,  wrote a poem series to Moodie after finding and reading Roughing it in the Bush in her parents' bookshelf. There are still books being published about Moodie and Parr as the two literate women wrote a lot in their time and kept a record of what life was really like in the woods of Canada, before Canada was a country.

What a horrific time it was for Susanna Moodie as a settler! As British aristocrats, her husband and her were completely ill-equipped to clear the land and survive. Children kept coming, ridiculous winters, deaths, fires, illnesses - all took their toll.

In fact, I enjoyed the book so much, I headed to the library to find...

Sisters in Two Worlds: A Visual Biography of Susanna Moodie and Catharine Parr Trail by  by Michael Peterman, 174 pages

I thought I liked the graphic novel (and I did) but this visual biography was even better. It covers the same material as the graphic novel, but so much more. It is done as a scrapbook, with plenty of pictures of old houses, the Strickland family (Catharine Parr and Susanna's family), and includes paintings of the areas by Canadians of the day.

 A very cool extra I discovered was a relative of mine! Emilia Shairp was a neighbour of Susanna's in the bush who also appears in Roughing It in the Bush. She is a great-great- something on my mother's side. Life was not easy for the early settlers and I've seen a picture of an old Shairp family (not necessarily Emilia's) in front of a log cabin with a bunch of kids that could easily be added to this book.

The sisters became somewhat famous for their writing in their later years and got to meet more important people. Their sister Agnes who stayed in England was also quite a famous biographer - she wrote about Queen Victoria and got to attend her inauguration.

So, not only was this a great biography of Susanna and Catharine Parr, but it was also an interesting look at life in Canada before it officially became Canada. So much history and paraphernalia was included. Really, this book could be used as a history text book, full of primary and secondary sources. The topic of the sisters is superimposed on the history of Canada from the immigrants landing at Grosse Ile, the quarantine station, to the beginnings of responsible government. Beginning with why people left England, to the adjustments of the society people living in the back woods.

Informative and beautiful!