While thumbing through the just returned books at the library I stumbled upon The Lost Diaries of Susanna Moodie, by Cecily Ross. Proof of my theory that the best library books are the ones someone else chose. I snapped up “The Diaries” and was soon immersed in the world of Britain and Canada of the mid-nineteenth century.
Susanna Moodie is best known to every Canadian school child for her most important work “Roughing it in the Bush,” the biographical tale of a genteel Englishwoman trying to stay alive in the Canadian wilderness. Susanna and her husband, John Moodie, are truly babes in the woods. Neither has any idea of the physical aspects of clearing land and farming. John Moodie in particular, a half-pay officer from the British Army, is entirely unsuited to the life they have chosen. He emigrated with dreams of living on a country estate with others to do the manual, back-breaking work of carving a farm out of the bush.
I remember first reading Roughing it in the Bush, as a child and marvelling at how mis-informed or wilfully ignorant the British upper classes were about homesteading. As a farm-girl, I knew the long hours, hard work, knowledge and skill required to turn forest bottom into fertile hay fields. I knew that livestock had to be tended every day, fed and watered regardless of the weather or the farmer’s personal agenda. John Moodie had none of those attributes. He was a jovial fellow, convinced that wealth in the New World would fall into his hands. In truth, he and his family would have starved to death in their first winter had not the local First Nations tribe provided them with food.
The Lost Diaries of Susanna Moodie is a work of fiction, as the author makes plain, but it is based on real characters. The facts of their lives are well-known from previous research and from Susanna’s letters and literary writings as well as from accounts in the local newspapers and official documents.
This is one of those instances when fact and fiction mingle to make an entertaining tale while keeping the historical record intact. From reading her own works, I know that Susanna was a pessimist and John and eternal optimist. I know he was a poor business man. I know that Susanna made enough money from her writing to keep them going – barely. What the author has done is write of Susanna’s thoughts and emotions — that turns the historical character into a multi-dimensional woman, thus bringing history alive for a modern reader. It’s a fine line to tread. One I’m cautious of in my own work. Too much fiction, and the author distorts history. Not enough fiction, and many readers turn away from an instructive discourse rated as too dull. In my view, Cecily Ross has struck the right balance. And I have a new empathy for Susanna Moodie, daughter, sister, mother, wife and writer, who struggled mightily to maintain her “self” in an age that considered her an appendage of her husband.