Reimagining the adventurous life of Susanna Moodie
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.