Creemore author builds on life of treasured national heroine

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A longtime fascination with Susanna Moodie has inspired Creemore author Cecily Ross to write her imagined life, filling in the gaps of the Canadian pioneer’s writing.

Susanna Moodie is the author of several books, some about her life in Upper Canada, beginning in 1832. The most famous of her works is Roughing It in the Bush, published in 1852. Ross read the book while at university and later, while living in a rented farmhouse with her two young daughters, they discovered across the road a plaque declaring the site the first homestead of John and Susanne Moodie after they arrived in Canada.

Ross said she and her daughters climbed a fence to find a pile of rubble, which they imagined was the remains of the small cowshed that housed the new immigrants, freshly removed from English society. They found a copy of Roughing It in the Bush in the house and read it together, which was memorable for all three.

But Susanna’s writing wasn’t personal and Ross said it left the reader wondering what she was really like.

“Because you couldn’t tell by her writing,” said Ross. “If you could, I probably wouldn’t have written this.”

In her debut novel, The Lost Diaries of Susanne Moodie, Ross finds a convincing voice for a woman of strong opinion and intelligence, who struggles under the responsibility of providing for six children and supporting a husband who gets involved in one foolish business venture after another, while living in poverty and isolation under the harshest of conditions.

The fictionalized diary introduces Susanna and her siblings, including Catherine Parr Traill and Samuel Strickland, who immigrated to Upper Canada ahead of the Moodies.

After the death of their father, the young women in the family begin writing in order to augment the family income.

In the chapter about the early years, Ross said, she takes inspiration from Jane Austin to find Susanna’s voice.

“As a young adolescent you tend to overwrite, sounding pretentious, as you may sound when you are a bright young writer,” said Ross. Once she leaves the comforts of society and her dreams begin to fade, “the language sort of flattens out a bit and becomes less pretentious.”

Based on research and Susanna’s own accounts, Ross writes about the challenges of clearing land and enduring the elements from the point of view of a woman left helpless at times as she and her children try to survive poverty and illness. Susanna is compared, throughout the book to her sister who has a much sunnier disposition and seems to relish life in the bush.

“I identify with Susanna, in her pessimism, whereas her sister is a foil to that,” said Ross. “I had to find ways for her to rally, to make her hopeful and redemptive in the end without sugar coating what she went through.”

The pivotal relationship in Susanna’s life is with her husband, who is at once devoted and fun loving but also scheming and foolish. Ross said published letters document the loving and devoted relationship between husband and wife, despite his character. Susanna was at the mercy of her husband’s whims and through Ross, one gets the sense that had Susanna Moodie lived in a different time, she would have made decisions to have fewer children, or no children, and dedicate more time to writing.

Even at her lowest, Ross writes that Susanna is of two minds when it comes to life in the bush and can sometimes see the comedy in their situation.

“She had a deep ambivalence,” said Ross. “It is much better than having one point of view, which brings you down.”

The Moodies never went back to England but she always had a troubled relationship with Canada, said Ross.

The book, published by Harper Collins, goes on sale April 25, when there will be a book launch in Toronto. Ross will be part of Authors for Indies at Curiosity House Books on Sat. April 29 (11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.).

Ross will share the stage with Michael Peterman, Canada’s foremost scholar on Susanna Moodie and Catharine Parr Traill, for a Fact and Fiction discussion at Tea and History, moderated by Hugh Brewster and hosted by Purple Hills Arts and Heritage Society at 2 p.m. on Sunday, April 30 at Station on the Green in Creemore. Admission is free.

The local launch party for the book is from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Saturday, May 6 at Curiosity House Books.

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