Reimag­in­ing the ad­ven­tur­ous life of Susanna Moodie

FIC­TION

The Hamilton Spectator - - BOOKS - NANCY WIGSTON

Susanna Moodie first laid claim to our na­tional psy­che in 1852, when her ac­count of life in back­woods Canada be­came an in­stant best­seller. Lively, hon­est, pierc­ingly ob­ser­vant, “Rough­ing It in the Bush” has in­spired poet Mar­garet At­wood, bi­og­ra­pher Char­lotte Gray and now nov­el­ist Ce­cily Ross, who presents the “lost di­aries,” a riv­et­ing reimag­in­ing of Susanna’s life.

The book is a sheer de­light. A child­hood rebel, an in­de­pen­dent thinker whose road to suc­cess in Eng­land as one of Suf­folk’s lit­er­ary Strick­land sis­ters seemed as­sured, Susanna fell pas­sion­ately in love with John Dun­bar Moodie, an ex-mil­i­tary charmer with years in South Africa un­der his belt.

In 1832, her op­ti­mistic hus­band took his re­luc­tant bride to the north woods in an era when Canada was all the rage.

Land was cheap, prof­its prac­ti­cally guar­an­teed.

Her sis­ter, Catharine (more fa­mous to­day as Catharine Parr Traill) also moved to Canada for love after mar­ry­ing the Voltaire-lov­ing Thomas Traill — they set­tled north of Peter­bor­ough near their pros­per­ous brother Sam and the Mood­ies soon joined them.

Two lit­er­ary ladies, two ex-sol­diers — what could pos­si­bly go wrong?

Fol­low­ing Susanna’s English life with her Cana­dian ad­ven­tures, Ross adds depth to her char­ac­ter, show­ing an im­mi­grant wife of­ten an­gry and frus­trated over her fate.

Cheated in a real es­tate deal, the cou­ple live in a hovel be­fore mov­ing fur­ther north. Land val­ues col­lapse; her gre­gar­i­ous hus­band has no head for busi­ness. With­out Chippewa help, Susanna and her chil­dren might have per­ished, their fail­ures mocked by many — if not all — of their neigh­bours.

Yet, in Ross’s telling, Susanna emerges as some­one we’d like to know.

If oc­ca­sion­ally the fic­tion goes over the top — Franken­stein author Mary Shel­ley propo­si­tion­ing Susanna in Lon­don, for in­stance — her sis­terly jeal­ousy over Catharine’s lit­er­ary suc­cess and her own lone­li­ness ring true.

Still, awed by the “eter­nal forests, at once beau­ti­ful and ter­ri­ble,” she briefly con­sid­ers a “tryst” with John in a ca­noe — the mark of a real Cana­dian.

These fic­tional di­aries give us the whole woman, a farm­ing wife and mother des­per­ately snatch­ing time to write when­ever she can. Ross’s Susanna — ig­no­rant, strug­gling, de­spair­ing, daz­zled — grows into a sur­vivor be­fore our eyes, a woman for­ever al­tered by her af­fec­tion for this strange new world.

Nancy Wigston is a free­lance writer and critic in Toronto. Toronto Star

“The Lost Di­aries of Susanna Moodie,” by Ce­cily Ross, HarperAv­enue, 400 pages, $22.99.

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