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A selection of books featuring early pioneer women writers

This week’s theme here at Dundurn is Canadian Sagas. An important and definitive saga in Canadian history is that of the pioneers who helped to shape the country as we know it. In celebration of Catharine Parr Traill’s 210th birthday today, we offer you a selection of books written by or about these early observers of settler life.

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Making it Home: As a pioneer in Canada in the early 1800s, Catharine Parr Traill was one of the first writers to record the Ontario wilderness in literary and scientific detail, and her stories for young people became part of a new focus on young people. Her books on emigration encouraged other pioneers who struggled with life in a new country. Catharine was a natural storyteller who loved to write. As an adult in Canada, she wrote while she was hungry and fearful for her family’s safety. Her life was one of hardship and adventure, but also of great joy. This biography shows how an English girl called Katie became an adult who gave so much to North America’s early literature.

Early Voices: Portraits of Canada by Women Writers, 1639-1914: This selection of writings by 29 women, known and unknown, professional and amateur, presents a unique portrait of Canada through time and space, from the 17th to the early 20th century, from the Maritimes to British Columbia and the Far North. There is a range of voices from high-born wives of governors general, to an Icelandic immigrant and a fisherman’s wife in Labrador. A Loyalist wife and mother describes the first hard weather in New Brunswick, a seasick nun tells of a dangerous voyage out from France, a famous children’s writer writes home about the fun of canoeing, and a German general’s wife describes habitant customs. All demonstrate how women’s experiences not only shared, but helped shape this new country.

Revisiting “Our Forest Home”:Frances Stewart arrived in Upper Canada from Ireland in 1822 with her husband, three children, and two servants. The family settled in Douro Township on the bank of the Otonabee River in 1823. Spanning three-quarters of a century, her letters represent the immigrant experience of one of the first pioneer women in the Peterborough, Ontario, area. Included are transcripts of the extant collection. They chronicle the three stages of Francess life: the years of her childhood in Ireland to her departure for North America;
her voyage across the Atlantic and her life in Upper Canada to the time of her husbands death in 1847; and the period of widowhood until her death in 1872. The chapter summaries, annotations, and key passages extracted from letters written by others further the story of Francess nineteenth-century immigrant life.

Susanna Moodie: Susanna Moodie was already a published author when she emigrated from England to Upper Canada with her husband and baby in 1832. The Moodies were seeking financial security and a better life in the colony, but they found themselves struggling to make a living on a bush farm. Despite her primitive life in the backwoods and the demands of caring for her children, Susanna continued to write and publish. In 1852 her best-known book, Roughing It in the Bush, was published in England. A Canadian edition appeared in 1871. Roughing It in the Bush has endured both as a valuable social document of the Canadian pioneer experience and as a work of literature.

Pearls and Pebbles: How fitting to close out the 20th century with a brand new edition of Pearls & Pebbles by the noted chronicler of pioneer life, Catharine Parr Traill. Published in 1894, Pearls & Pebbles is an unusual book with a lasting charm, in which the author’s broad focus ranges from the Canadian natural environment to early settlement of Upper Canada. Through Traill’s eyes, we see the life of the pioneer woman, the disappearance of the forest, and the corresponding changes in the life of the Native Canadians who have inhabited that forest. Editor Elizabeth Thompson reminds us of the significance of the writings by Traill, the aged author/naturalist, who felt that the hours spent gathering the pebbles and pearls from her notebooks and journals written in the backwoods of Canada was not time wasted.

About the author

Laura is the Marketing Designer at Dundurn Press.

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