Oh Canada! Roughing It in the Bush, Susanna Moodie

2851054Roughing It in the Bush is Susanna Moodie’s memoir, detailing her emigration from Great Britain to Canada. Moodie, a middle-class Englishwoman, came from a literary family. Encouraged by her editor, she decided to write this entertaining and educational, though sometimes slightly longwinded look at her experience. It was published roughly 20 years after she first arrived in Canada.

Moodie came to Canada in 1832, when emigration was popular among the English. The Moodies had no great interest in emigrating, but with little money to their names, the prospect of cheap land seemed like a good solution to their financial difficulties. However, it soon became clear that the Moodies were unprepared for what awaited them in Canada. The timing of their arrival was unfortunate: Quebec, their port of arrival, was in the grip of the cholera, and they fell prey to ever-present speculators, who were just waiting for naïve newcomers willing to buy land and supplies unseen. The economic depression that gripped Canada in the mid-1830s forced the Moodies into debt, and eventually, Mr. Moodie had to join the militia in order to earn money, leaving Susanna, their five children, and a servant alone in the “bush,” as she called it. It took the Moodies 7 years to establish a decent and secure existence in their new homeland.

This was an interesting read, though it took me a long time to decide whether I liked Susanna or not. It was obvious early on that she was a pious, well-meaning, and helpful person, but she also looked down on many of her fellow emigrants. Reading the early chapters, you get the impression that there was only one thing that differentiated the settlement of Australia from the settlement of Canada: Australia got the European riff-raff that got convicted of wrongdoing, and Canada got the European riff-raff that left voluntarily. There were plenty of descriptions of drunken Irish, underhanded Yankees, and uppity servant girls. But to be fair, she has much more patience with her impertinent new neighbors out in the bush than I would have had, and I was pleasantly surprised by her open and accepting attitude towards the native population.

Moodie is not above criticizing herself and being frank about her ignorance and mistakes.

My husband and I had worked hard in the field; it was the first time I had ever tried my hand at field-labour, but our ready money was exhausted, and the steam-boat stock had not paid us one farthing; we could not hire, and there was no help for it. I had a hard struggle with my pride before I would consent to render the least assistance on the farm,…

Halfway through the book, I started to really like her. She was forced to deal with a lot of hardship, and her life was anything but easy, especially once her husband signed on with the militia. Her only relief at that point were her neighbors, who had grown in number and helpfulness. Ironically, when it was time for her to leave the woods, she felt hesitant.

For seven years, I had lived out of the world entirely; my person had been rendered course by hard work and exposure to the weather. I looked double the age I really was, and my hair was already thickly sprinkled with grey. I clung to my solitude. I did not like to be dragged from it to mingle in gray scenes, in a busy town, and with gaily-dressed people. I was no longer fit for the world; I had lost all relish for the pursuits and pleasures which are so essential to its votaries; I was contented to live and die in obscurity.

Moodie wrote this account of her experience to help prepare future settlers for emigration. In her introduction, she specifically mentioned the danger of popular pamphlets circulating in England that raised unrealistic expectations in emigrants. I think she succeeded admirably in describing the unexpected challenges that come with a move to an unknown country, which in many cases required skills few emigrants had. Some of her readers criticized her for her critical view of Canada and questioned her loyalty to her new homeland. But I think the book shows rather well how she transformed from English to Canadian. Aside from the book being a bit repetitive and verbose in some parts, it was a pleasure reading it.

I read the book together with Naomi (Consumed by Ink) and CJ (ebookclassics), and so be sure to check out their reviews.

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8 comments

  1. Rats! I wished I’d know about this read-along, because I would have loved to read along with you all. Have you read her sister’s book The Backwoods of Canada by Catherine Parr Traill? Two sisters could not be more different, and if you read it, you hear a much more positive tone. Sometimes experiences are good and bad, because of actuality, but sometimes it’s simply because of perception which is influenced by character. It’s very interesting to compare the two books (and sisters). In any case, I loved your review and would love to pull this book off my shelf and give it a read.

    • Now why am I not surprised that you have read this book? I enjoyed it most of the time, and I am planning to read her sister’s account as well. I am sure it makes a difference whether you are enthusiastic or merely resigned about all the changes that such a momentous event as emigration brings with it.

  2. I’m relieved to hear you liked her in the end – I was worried I might have missed something. Of course she had prejudices, but, considering that it was the 1830s, I thought she did pretty well keeping an open mind about everyone. And, I agree that she had endless patience with her unwanted visitors. Imagine having people drop by unannounced, having to feed them even when you have no food, and then having them stay as long as they feel like in a house that had very little space. I could handle being alone on the bush for a long time much better than I could handle the ‘guests’.

    For the most part, I really enjoyed this book (as is probably evident by my monstrous review). There were parts that were a little verbose, but I loved her humour and honesty, and I loved getting a first-hand account of 1830s Canada rather than a fictionalized one (I do also love the fictionalized ones, but it’s nice to also have a more authentic perspective).

    • Your review certainly shows how much you’ve enjoyed this book, and I am glad you did. I agree with you; I could probably handle being in the bush much better than having to deal with those parasitic neighbors. I certainly appreciated her honesty and her ability to make fun of herself at times. And it had a very authentic feel to it, though I would have been ok with a slightly shorter version.

      • I’ll be interested to see what the new children’s version is like. Maybe it’ll just the right length. It did take me the whole month to get through it, even though I really enjoyed it. Which is why I had so many notes – so that I wouldn’t forget anything at the end of the month. And, all those notes are the reason my review is so long. After making them all, I wanted to put them to good use! 🙂

  3. I didn’t really think about Susanna’s likeability while I was reading the book, but looking back it may have been one of the reasons why I struggled with the book. Ultimately, I liked her and sympathized with her position. I definitely think she had more tolerance and patience than I when it came to her neighbours and some of the things she endured.

    • I am sorry that of the three of us, you liked the book least. I can definitely see how it wouldn’t appeal to everyone. I like that particular time in history, and so I enjoyed this very realistic look at life back then. Let’s hope you enjoy your next book better!

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