CanLit Canon Review #1: Susanna Moodie’s Roughing it in the Bush

In an attempt to make himself a better Canadian, Craig MacBride is reading and reviewing the books that have shaped this country.

Susanna Moodie’s Roughing it in the Bush is a memoir, written as an attempt to enlighten her people back home in the motherland to the terrible weather and accommodations in British North America. It was published in 1852 in Britain but not until 1871 in Canada.

Her suggestion to those back home in Jolly Old England? Stay there.

“If these sketches should prove the means of deterring one family from sinking their property, and shipwrecking all their hopes, by going to reside in the backwoods of Canada, I shall consider myself amply repaid for revealing the secrets of the prison-house, and feel that I have not toiled and suffered in the wilderness in vain.”

She had arrived in 1832 in the untamed colony of Upper Canada, somewhere near where Peterborough now stands, from civilized and class-conscious England. She traded in her middle-class comforts and settled in the New World with her husband John and their daughter, and they quickly fell into poverty as they tried to get their new farm producing.

Once settled, Moodie gave birth to two sons and the growing family suffered in terrible conditions, with snow blowing into the house through cracks in the walls, with very little food, and with underperforming crops. They made “coffee” out of dandelions and trapped and ate chipmunks and squirrels (black squirrels were best, “equal to that of a rabbit”). They even killed and ate a pet dog named Spot.

At one point, Moodie writes, “My love for Canada was a feeling very nearly allied to that which the condemned criminal entertains for his cell — his only hope of escape being through the portals of the grave.”

Moodie was also disgusted by her neighbours, mostly brash Americans who settled in Canada after the War of 1812 and uneducated Irish immigrants. To Moodie’s dismay, neither group appreciated the class structure that had kept Mother England humming, and Moodie didn’t meet a single person she liked for the first 120 pages of the 237-page book. Only the Aboriginal people received her approval and fueled her faith that high moral standards could be achieved in the bush.

“I had heard and read much of savages, and have seen, during my long residence in the bush, somewhat of uncivilized life, but the Indian is one of nature’s gentleman — he never says or does a rude or vulgar thing. The vicious, uneducated barbarians, who form the surplus of overpopulous European countries, are far behind the wild man in delicacy of feeling or natural courtesy.”

Moodie spent seven tough years living in poverty on the troubled farm, and it wasn’t until she and her family finally boarded a sleigh out of the bush and to a real town, Belleville, that she began to love Canada.

Roughing it in the Bush is a rewarding read. It is not a saccharine memoir, and it is not an overblown adventure yarn. It is a frank and fascinating, and sometimes frightful, tale and, while it feels singular, it reminds readers that Moodie’s was a story lived by thousands of men and women who were crazy enough to leave the relative comforts of Europe for the uncertain and terrible life of roughing it in the bush. It is our first immigrant story, and it’s certainly deserving of its place in the canon.