Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The Lost Diaries of Susanna Moodie by Cecily Ross, biographical fiction about an early Canadian settler

One might say Susanna Moodie is to Canada what Laura Ingalls Wilder is to the United States: both were early pioneers who gained renown for books about their experiences. Moodie’s Roughing It in the Bush (1852), recounting the first seven years she spent in Upper Canada as a young wife and mother in the 1830s, is considered a classic.

With her debut, Cecily Ross imagines Susanna’s personal journal. It’s convincing as a period diary while fulfilling expectations for a satisfying, well-researched historical novel. Notably, it goes where an account published for public consumption simply couldn’t: into the intimate reaches of a woman’s heart. The tone is warm, honest, and spiced with wit.

Ross gives eloquent voice to Susanna’s frustrations with the husband she loves, John Dunbar Moodie, an Orcadian dreamer whose “unquenchable thirst for adventure” leads them into a life full of hardships. She also provides details on the help Susanna receives from indigenous women, and her close relationship with sister Kate (fellow settler Catharine Parr Traill), whose sunny optimism contrasts with Susanna’s somber disposition. We feel Susanna’s confusion and heartbreak as they grow apart.

Susanna begins her diary at age twelve, growing up in Regency-era Suffolk as the non-conformist youngest daughter in the poverty-stricken Strickland family, many of whom have literary aspirations. The considerable time devoted to her English years lets us see firsthand why Susanna, raising a large family amid terrible poverty on their wilderness farm—often without John’s presence—yearned so much for home.

Her story also movingly speaks to the ways women reacted to gender limitations. As Ross illustrates, Canada offers scenes of breathtaking beauty, and there are moments of joy and humor, but pioneer life is consistently hard. “This land is erasing me and beginning to remake me in ways I never anticipated,” Susanna writes, and we’re with her every moment on this transformative and ultimately triumphant journey.

The Lost Diaries of Susanna Moodie by Cecily Ross was published in April by HarperAvenue, an imprint of HarperCollins Canada; the book is also available from US outlets ($16.99, or $22.99 in Canada, 381pp).  This review also appears in August's Historical Novels Review.

Some additional notes:

- A Celebration of Women Writers, hosted by UPenn's digital library, has the complete text of the 2nd edition of Roughing It in the Bush.

- Susanna Moodie isn't well known in the US; the main reason I'd been aware of her before this novel is because I used to be the subject bibliographer for Canadian Studies at my previous library job.  Her story is worth knowing.

- Readers of Jean Plaidy's novels should recognize the name of Agnes Strickland, whose multi-volume Lives of the Queens of England was often listed as a source in Plaidy's bibliographies.  Agnes and her sister Elizabeth (her uncredited, publicity-shy co-author) were also sisters to Susanna and Catharine.  They stayed behind in England and created literary careers for themselves.  All appear in Ross's novel.


8 comments:

  1. A new book for me. Thanks for the review.

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    1. Pleased you found the review useful!

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  2. It's nice to see our Canadian icon Susanna Moodie getting some attention! I have to say I found Roughing it in the Bush a hard slog when I was a student, but I think I'd enjoy Ross's novel!

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    1. I've only read sections of Roughing it in the Bush, and the style isn't always easy to read, so I can understand that! If you end up reading the novel, I'd be curious to hear what you thought.

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  3. I have never read Roughing it in the Bush but have read Sisters in the Wilderness which is a non fiction book about Susannah and her other sister Katherine. They certainly had a hard time of it. I think American readers would enjoy it as once you are in the wilderness that is it!

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    1. I came across mention of Sisters in the Wilderness while looking up more information on the sisters. I'll have to check it out, especially since I'm now curious to know more about Kate/Catharine.

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  4. I just finished reading Sisters of the Wilderness by Charlotte Gray. I often switch up my reading genres, mixing it up between, fiction, non-fiction and classics. Written by a Canadian author about Canadian authors from the 1800's, this non-fiction was so interesting on many points, living your life in the Canadian wilderness in the 1800's alone can fill the pages, however to know what got the sisters through these tough times, their love of nature. Catherine writing books and articles until into her 90's is inspiring alone. Sadly, Susanna did not live that long. This is a well written biography of two very strong and determined women

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    1. Thanks very much for the recommendation. Cecily Ross mentions in her afterword that Charlotte Gray read an early draft of her novel and provided encouragement.

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