Book Review of Early Voices

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            Early Voices: Portraits of Canada by Women Writers, 1639-1914, edited by Mary Alice Downie and Barbara Robertson with Elizabeth Jane Errington, is a collection of excerpts from letters, diaries and books of women authors who were in Canada between the 1600s and early 1900s. 

            The book, divided into sections by geographic locations, shows the reader what life was like in Canada as it was being settled, going through Confederation and adjusting to the advances of the twentieth century. The 29 excerpts from 29 women range from the production of maple syrup to the challenges of being a newcomer in a foreign land to the rules (and thrill) of winter sports.

            The editors of Early Voices, in the preface, say they hope to inform Canadians about the lives that women from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries were faced with and had to endure. They try to portray not only the differences between life then and now but the similarities, too: “the welcome break-up of ice…the blight of black flies.” There are gaps, as the authors admit, in the type of women given voice in this book. This seems to stem, however, not from a lack of research but the fact that, “the women simply weren’t here, weren’t writing in English, or did not have the luxury of time to write at length.” Having said this, there is an admirable diversity in the authors. There are, of course, upper-class women travelling with diplomat relatives (Lady Aberdeen; Baroness Von Reidesel), but also a half-Chinese journalist (Sui Sin Far) and Ella C. Sykes, a traveler and one of the first female members of the Royal Geographical Society.

            All of the excerpts show telling details about early life inCanadaand serve as a reminder of how far society has come, from pulling ox-wagons through feet of mud to panning for gold in the Yukon. Each excerpt is introduced with a brief overview of the author’s life and the general circumstances surrounding the writing of the passage. Some passages, such as the one from Margaret Dickie Michener’s journal, are sad and poignant. Other passages, including one from a letter by Monica Hopkins’, are humourous and well depict the adjustments that were necessary to make, to settle into life in largely untamed frontier towns.Hopkinsdetails her attempt at trying to remove stains from her laundry by soaking it overnight, only to discover the bath, along with all of her clothes, turned into a solid block of ice. Refusing to wait until spring for the ice to thaw, she and a friend set about chipping out the clothes, with screwdrivers, despite fears of cracking the bathtub.  

            The last two excerpts in the book, in the section ‘British Columbia and Northern Regions’, are passages from Mina Hubbard and Lydia Campbell’s writings, women who travelled through and spent time in Labrador. Mina Hubbard’s A Women’s Way Through Unknown Labrador is a book telling her story of finishing the journey her husband, Leonidas Hubbard, had attempted in 1903, but died of starvation before he could complete it. The excerpt in this book tells of her crew’s encounter with a herd of migrating caribou, which Hubbard eagerly photographed. Hubbard, who later settled in England permanently, was in rapture with Labrador: “Labrador is a land of rainbows and rainbow colours, and nowhere have I seen them so brilliant.” Lydia Campbell is the author of Sketches of Labrador Life, originally published by Them Days in 1980.Campbell is believed to be the first native Labradorian to have her diary published and, in Tony Williamson’s foreword to her book, represented “the beginning of a literate, independent and self-sufficient group of pioneers who made their home inLabrador.” Campbell discusses the terrain ofLabrador as well as the cultures of the Inuit and Innu. She talks about the need to stock up on food for the impending winter and their custom of giving food and shelter to any traveller that needed it.

            The excerpts in Early Voices are all short and easy, enjoyable passages to read. The book gives a detailed, if slightly haphazard (in regards to time and theme), picture of early Canada. However, this wide range of themes gives the reader the opportunity to learn about different aspects of women’s lives in the seventeenth through twentieth centuries. The letters and journal entries don’t trouble themselves with the political situation of the time, as that did not have an effect on the women’s daily lives. Trying to raise their children (14 in the case of Susan Allison), these women had more pressing things on their minds. They were usually responsible not only for their children, but also for the household, the food and maintaining correspondence with friends and family, often living in other countries.

 -Chelcie

(Photo from here).

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