CanLit Challenge Book #25: The Backwoods of Canada by Catharine Parr Traill
Filed under: CanLit Challenge — Ibis at 5:38 pm on Friday, November 30, 2007

Book 25, The Backwoods of Canada (1836) – Catharine Parr Traill
From the back cover:
“The toils, troubles, and satisfactions of pioneer life are recorded with charm and vivacity in The Backwoods of Canada, by Catharine Parr Traill, who, like her sister Susanna Moodie, left the comforts of genteel English society for the rigours of a new, young land. Traill offers a vivid and honest account of her trip to North America and of her first two and a half years living in the bush country near Peterborough, Ontario.

Treasured by its nineteenth-century readers as an important source of practical information, The Backwoods of Canada is an extraordinary portrayal of pioneer life by one of early Canada’s most remarkable women.”

Other useful links:
the Wikipedia article on Catharine Parr Traill
the Dictionary of Canada biography
Catharine Parr Traill and Susanna Moodie at Library and Archives Canada

My thoughts:
I’m so far behind in journalling & blogging about my books! I posted this entry back in November and it’s now July. I enjoyed this book tremendously. It was rather like going back in time and travelling from Britain to the New World (and a place not very far from where I now live) with a woman just a few years younger than I.

She starts out by describing her passage out. Unlike the “lower class of Highlanders” travelling on a passenger ship, Catharine and her husband sail somewhat luxuriously by comparison on the brig Laurel. She talks extensively about her landing in Québec City, her observations about her journey to where she would eventually settle on the Otanabee River near Peterborough, Ontario.

That part really stuck out in my mind because as I was reading about her journey to Cobourg, I just happened to be on a train travelling from Ottawa to Oshawa. There were mechanical problems with the train and it kept having to stop so everything could be checked. What was to be a four-hour trip turned into a seven-hour one. People on the train were not very pleased, believe me. But here I was, reading about what such a journey was like in almost the same place (the train did eventually go through Cobourg) just 176 years before, in 1832. It took her several days to get from Montreal to Cobourg and she had to travel the final distance to Peterborough on foot in the dark.

I loved her extensive descriptions of the way of life when first settling the land—this is something I’m sure many of my own ancestors did—and of the aboriginal peoples she encountered and made friends with. Her drawings enriched and complemented her written narrative.

The only improvement would have been to read an annotated and (further) illustrated edition—one with the plants and flowers she describes especially.

The afterword by D. M. R. Bentley was superb, very memorable:

The prototypically Canadian vision that reaches forward in time and outwards in space from The Backwoods of Canada is highly ordered and organizing. Spatial rather than linear, it is as out of place among ‘interminable’ and ‘impenetrable’ forests as it is at home in the frame-houses and picturesque landscapes into which it wishes to transform those forests. It finds as continually worthy of praise lands that are in a ‘high state of cultivation’ as it finds by turns discomfiting and claustrophobic the ‘desolate wilderness of gloomy and unbroken forest-trees.’ Yet in a visual and physical equivalent of the social harmonies and hierarchies that are present in the backwoods, it seeks in the landscape a balance between the man-made and the unacculturated, between the completely artificial […] and nature as completely other — as unknown and, therefore, unimaginably remote, like ‘the north-west passage.’

… The Backwoods of Canada is a book about willed connections and existential possibilities. It is also a book about individualism and community, hierarchy and harmony, prosperity and poverty, human beings and nature. That these issues are at least as important in Canada today as they were in the 1830s is hardly fortuitous: the foundations were being laid then, both socially and environmentally, for what is here and now. More than the ‘useful,’ ‘amusing.’ and morally instructive book that she intended to write, The Backwoods of Canada is a reflection of an emerging culture and a distant mirror of what that culture has become.