Roughing It in the Bush, Susanna Moodie, 1852
Just in case you forgot most of what you learned in your history classes: England had an overpopulation problem in the 1830s. Speculators tried to sell Brits on the idea of leaving England to try their fortunes in the New World. Canada, being part of the Commonwealth, was a popular destination for plucky, ambitious adventurers.
Sadly, there was no internet in the 1830s. Hopeful emigrants couldn’t pull up a “My Canadian Farm” blog to ascertain whether the get-rich-quick-in-Canada stories were true. Susanna Moodie and her family heard that in Canada the soil is fertile, the climate is congenial and the natives are welcoming. Best of all, there was some kind of homesteading deal going on where you could get land for free, kind of, if you farmed it. There was no farmland left in England, so they packed their bags and set sail for Quebec.
Things started to go wrong as soon as they sighted Canadian shores. Quebec was hit with a cholera epidemic. Instead of resting from her long voyage in the city, Moodie had to strike out into the wilderness with her husband and baby immediately.
Roughing It in the Bush is a narrative of the trials Moodie and her family faced while attempting to settle the backwoods of Canada. Those trials included:
- soil not as advertised. Only somewhat fertile.
- fucking cold winters.
- fire burns down part of house and almost kills children.
- rude, impoverished neighbors constantly borrowing tools and not returning them. (Moodie really did not like anyone born in Canada. Occasionally, she encountered another Brit and thoroughly enjoyed their company.)
- husband had to leave a few times to participate in skirmishes between England and settlers seeking independence. He participated on the Loyalist/Royalist side.
- constant fear of natives.
- cold, cold winters.
- constantly pregnant.
- wild animals.
- cold winters.
I found Moodie’s narrative incredibly compelling. Her sense of humor livens up what could easily have been a long list of complaints. Even though, I rarely read non-fiction, I was drawn to her story of hardship. Imagining her out in the woods, pregnant, struggling through dismal winters to keep her family safe and fed…touches your heartstrings.
Eventually, her husband got a job in a town and they moved out of the bush. Moodie describes this moment with an extremely elated sense of relief. Once she was safely established in civilization, she started writing to earn a bit of extra money for her 7,000 kids. She wrote Roughing It in the Bush to dissuade others from buying into the “Free Awesome Farms in Canada!” narrative.
You might like Roughing It in the Bush if:
- you love Little House of the Prairie, but you just don’t think life as a settler could possibly have been as quaint and idyllic a Laura Ingalls Wilder portrays it.
Margaret Atwood wrote a book of poetry inspired by the life and writings of Susanna Moodie. She’s kind of a big deal in Canadian literature. I liked the book. You might too, if you’re into this kind of thing.