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TraveLit--A blog about travel literature. 

     Even with the best of maps and instruments, we can never fully chart our journeys.

Roughing It in the Bush

Roughing It in the Bush or Life in Canada
By Susanna Moodie. With a New Introduction by Margaret Atwood. Originally published 1852. Virago/Beacon Travelers, Beacon Press, 1986.

In the 1830s, thousands of people—lured by promises of fertile soil, a mild climate, cheap goods, and minimal taxes—emigrated from England to Canada. They “thought that they had only to come out to Canada to make their fortunes,” writes Susanna Moodie, “almost even to realise the story told in the nursery, of the sheep and oxen that ran about the streets, ready roasted, and with knives and forks upon their backs. They were made to believe that if it did not actually rain gold, that precious metal could be obtained…by stooping to pick it up.”

Moodie, who emigrated to Canada with her husband and baby daughter in 1832, aims to tell it like it really was: poor soil, a brutal climate, illness, goods that might be cheap but were, on remote farms, unobtainable, and hard toil that, after 7 years in the backwoods, had sprinkled her hair with grey, rendered her “person…coarse,” and left her looking double her age.

Moodie, a writer who had published a book of poems before leaving England, wrote the sketches that form the basis of this book for the Literary Garland (1852) and The Victorian Magazine (1847). She intended her memoir to deter people from the middle and upper-middle classes—families like her own—from emigrating to Canada where they were likely to fail. She believed that only working-class people, accustomed to hard labor, would be likely to thrive in the rough new world.

For all that, Roughing It in the Bush is extremely entertaining, all the more so because the author is so unfit for the situation in which she lands. She is an innocent, unprepared for the rude neighbors who “borrow” what they will never return. She is terrified of cattle, which makes it a bit difficult for her to milk the cow. The first bread she bakes is a disaster: “Oh, Mrs. Moodie!” says a friend. “I hope you make better books than bread.”

Still, she copes, with routine trials as well as with emergencies—as when a chimney fire nearly destroys the house. She is forbearing even when a horrid, arrogant fellow her husband barely knows moves in with them for 9 months, contributing little work and belittling her daily. And she writes of it all with (mostly) good humor and humor.

In her excellent introduction, Atwood sees Roughing It as “belonging to a distinct tradition of travel writing—a tradition that perhaps culminates in Eric Newby’s A Short Walk In the Hindu Kush—in which the horribleness of the journey, the filthiness and squalor of the accommodations, and the awfulness of the food are outdone only by the traveller’s self-perceived lunacy in having undertaken the trip at all.”

This is an astute and modernizing approach to this book, especially for readers resistant to its old-fashioned tone. This is definitely a work of the past, but her sketches of characters remain vibrant, and I found the book as a whole an engrossing introduction to a historical time and place that I—like most Americans, I suspect—know almost nothing about.







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