Last time, we explored the notion that there is in fact a body of Sagas of Peterborians, analogous to those composed by the early settlers of Iceland a thousand and more years ago. This time, I want to take a look at one of those “Peterborian sagas” in particular. Catherine Parr Traill is best-known for her collection of writings published as The Backwoods of Canada in 1836, but she was a prolific author beyond that. In addition to her (several) guides for immigrants to Canada, she also wrote a number of children’s books, and among those is a novel called The Canadian Crusoes: A Tale of the Rice Lake Plains, published in 1852 by Arthur Hall, Virtue, & Co. in London, England. It’s a fascinating if flawed work on a number of levels; read on, as we take a closer look.
The plot of the book is fairly simple, and in fact is readily guessable from the title. In the very early days of settlement in this area, in the late eighteenth century, three adolescent children (Scots-Canadian siblings named Hector and Catherine and their French-Canadian cousin Louis) get themselves lost in the woods near Rice Lake. They build themselves a shelter and begin to gather food — homesteading, essentially — and are in due course joined by a Mohawk child, whom they rescue from death at the hands of the “Ojebwas” (Traill’s spelling) and name “Indiana.” Indiana’s immense store of woodscraft in turn rescues the children on a number of occasions, and they are further aided by the arrival on the scene of a familiar dog and by the chance discovery of a fully-loaded canoe. Adventures — including a forest fire, a storm on the lake, and Catherine’s eventual capture by, and rescue from, the “Ojebwas” — take place, and are survived. Eventually, but only after a couple of years in the wilderness and a chance meeting with an old family friend, the children find their way home again, Indiana is adopted by their parents and later marries Hector, and Catherine and Louis get married as well (the fact that Catherine and Louis are first cousins is deftly kicked under the rug by the author: “I am not sufficiently skilled in the laws of their church to tell how the difficulty of nearness of kin was obviated…”). All ends happily.
As you can probably tell from my description of it, Canadian Crusoes, in this day and age, makes an easy target for eye-rolling. It is, after all, on one level an almost laughably unsubtle mid-19th-century allegory for the emerging nation of Canada: two English-speaking and one French-speaking person encounter the Canadian wilderness. They withstand its dangers and eventually tame it with the help of a Native person (named “Indiana,” just in case anybody was still missing the point). In gratitude, they induct their Native saviour into their own culture, once her skills are no longer needed for basic survival. There is a lot in the work that does not pass cultural muster today, in particular its treatment of Aboriginal people, so it is quite easy to see Canadian Crusoes as a piece of ham-handed propaganda.
There is some legitimacy in that too, and it is clear that Traill saw the developing British-Canadian culture as far superior to either the French or the Aboriginal among Canada’s founding peoples. It is surely no accident that there two Anglophone kids as opposed to one who is French, nor that it is entirely the French child’s fault that they all get lost in the first place. And while Traill is careful to give each of the children his or her own chance to shine in the course of the story, Hector and Catherine get slightly more of the limelight than does poor Louis. As mentioned, the depiction of Aboriginal peoples is, in modern parlance, “problematic” — Indiana is described early on as viewing bathing as “unnecessary ceremony,” until Catherine teaches her better. And Traill spends much of the book setting up the “Ojebwas” as a terrifying “Other” — killers of Indiana’s family, abuctors of Catherine, and generally fearsome — and most of the more awkward moments, to modern readers, occur while she is doing so. The work certainly has its cringe-inducing moments.
However, a closer look at Canadian Crusoes reveals, as is often the case, hidden depths; Catherine Parr Traill was no fool, and behind the Canadian myth-making, paternalistic racism, and all that, there are some almost subversive things going on. For one thing, the unquestioned hero of the work is Indiana (with Catherine a strong if distinct second — Traill was clearly not having any of the notion that women were less capable of surviving in the bush than men). As already mentioned, it is Indiana’s wilderness skills that save the children, and that happens more than once in the book. On a number of occasions, as the white children are sitting around wondering how to solve a problem, or are simply moping about it, Indiana steps in and deals with things quickly and effectively and without any fuss. Traill hammers home her point, here: the frequency of such episodes is almost humorous by the end, and one particularly blunt example involves the aftermath of Catherine’s capture by the “Ojebwas”:
Inconsolable for the loss of their beloved companion, Hector and Louis no longer took interest in what was going on; they hardly troubled themselves to weed the Indian corn, in which they had taken such great delight; all now seemed to them flat, stale, and unprofitable; they wandered listlessly to and fro, silent and sad; the sunshine had departed from their little dwelling; they ate little, and talked less, each seeming absorbed in his own painful reveries.
Indiana, meanwhile, has taken the children’s canoe and gone to rescue Catherine, at considerable peril to her own life. Although her mostly willing assimilation to white culture, and her almost religious devotion to the other three children, are a little bit suspicious, she is a glorious character nonetheless.
And while, as mentioned, Traill’s depiction of Natives, and of Native culture, in Canadian Crusoes has its extremely offensive elements, it is not entirely so. The book’s climax takes place in the heart of what is now the city of Peterborough, and Traill breaks off to describe the city in her own time. The passage includes these lines, describing a Native observer of the new town:
“He traverses those populous, busy streets, he looks round upon dwellings, and gay clothes, and equipages, and luxuries which he can neither obtain nor imitate; and feels his spirit lowered—he is no more a people—the tide of intellect has borne him down, and swept his humble wigwam from the earth. He, too, is changing: he now dwells, for the most part, in villages, in houses that cannot be moved away at his will or necessity; he has become a tiller of the ground, his hunting expeditions are prescribed within narrow bounds, the forest is disappearing, the white man is everywhere. The Indian must also yield to circumstances; he submits patiently. Perhaps he murmurs in secret; but his voice is low, it is not heard; he has no representative in the senate to take interest in his welfare, to plead in his behalf.”
That last sentence is particularly interesting, as it is not the only time in Traill’s works that she decries the lack of Native representation, and a Native voice, in the body politic. And while she portrays Native people in Canadian Crusoes as gullible, childlike, violent, and in generally “uncivilized,” she also portrays them as generous, brave, and kind — even the fearsome “Ojebwas.” There are parts of the book that would not be considered acceptable today in their depiction of Aboriginal people, but for Traill’s time it is a sympathetic and even respectful portrayal in many ways.
And there is another theme that underlies the work: that of the necessity but also the real possibility of cooperation and friendship between the peoples and cultures of the nascent country of Canada (albeit with a pronounced “British-centric” flavour). While Hector and Catherine are very much the representatives of British culture in the little group of lost children, they are in fact of Scottish-French parentage (is it significant that their father is Scots and not English? Possibly). Their father, a Highland soldier wounded on the Plains of Abraham, meets their mother while recuperating in a French-run boarding-house in Quebec (“though a foreigner and an enemy, he received much kind attention…”); she is the daughter of the boarding-house’s owner. That is basically how the book opens, and it is very significant that it closes with another pair of inter-cultural marriages. There is an important linguistic exchange in the plot as well; Catherine teaches Indiana English, and Indiana returns the favour with her own language (French, unfortunately, does not make an appearance, which weakens but does not completely discredit the theme).
And associated with the overall theme of cooperation is the idea that people (and peoples) not only should but can and will get along just fine once they get to know each other. Things even work out fairly well between the children and the dreaded “Ojebwas” — Catherine is looked after well and treated kindly, and even makes some friends, though she is their prisoner. Her captivity is resolved fairly amicably in the end, too (albeit after a bit of trickery on Catherine’s part). “We can all get along, and we will” is not a bad founding myth for a new nation, and while subsequent historical reality would fall short of that myth on far too many occasions, it remains a decent-enough idea now. To say the least.
There is another element to the book, though one un-related to Canadian Crusoes’ cultural and historical elements: the book serves as a very interesting 19th-century gazetteer for the area around Rice Lake. Traill is fond of inserting footnotes and appendices describing the areas explored by the children as they were in her own times. At one point in the novel, Indiana warns her companions against setting foot on Spook Island in Rice Lake itself, telling them that to do so will anger the ghosts. Traill inserts the following comment in an appendix:
“Spooke Island. A singular and barren island in the Rice Lake, seventh from the head of the lake, on which the Indians used formerly to bury their dead, for many years held as a sacred spot, and only approached with reverence. Now famous for two things, picnics and poison ivy, rhus toxicodendron,—many persons having suffered for their temerity in landing upon it and making it the scene of their rural festivities.”
And as I mentioned above, she has a long description of the town of Peterborough itself, circa 1850.
In addition to being a guide to the area of Rice Lake, Canadian Crusoes is also a guide to how to survive in it, one directed particularly at young people (the book is dedicated to “the children of the settlers of the Rice Lake plains). It is full of very detailed and clear descriptions of many of the things that the four children (well, usually Indiana) do to get by in the wilderness, including for example the cultivation of wild rice. And it is worth remembering here that the book was written at a time when getting lost in the woods was in fact a fate that could befall a Canadian child quite easily indeed. From the preface, written by Traill’s sister Agnes Strickland, to the 1852 edition:
…scarcely a summer passes over the colonists in Canada, without losses of children from the families of settlers occurring in the vast forests of the backwoods, similar to that on which the narrative of the Canadian Crusoes is founded. Many persons thus lost have perished in the wilderness; and it is to impress on the memory the natural resources of this country, by the aid of interesting the imagination, that the author of the well-known and popular work, “The Backwoods of Canada,” has written the following pages…
Our writer has striven to interest children, or rather young people approaching the age of adolescence, in the natural history of this country, simply by showing them how it is possible for children to make the best of it when thrown into a state of destitution as forlorn as the wanderers on the Rice Lake Plains. Perhaps those who would not care for the berry, the root, and the grain, as delineated and classified technically in books of science, might remember their uses and properties when thus brought practically before their notice as the aliments of the famishing fellow-creature, with whom their instinctive feelings must perforce sympathies. When parents who have left home comforts and all the ties of gentle kindred for the dear sakes of their rising families, in order to place them in a more independent position, it is well if those young minds are prepared with some knowledge of what they are to find in the adopted country; the animals, the flowers, the fruits, and even the minuter blessings which a bountiful Creator has poured forth over that wide land.
Traill’s first appendix to the work further discusses the problem of lost children and includes a “real-life” account of a 17-year-old girl from near Windsor who got lost and survived for three weeks on her own. Canadian Crusoes is as much a guide for recent arrivals in a new landscape as it is an allegorical story.
As a Peterborian saga, Canadian Crusoes fits the bill in every way except one. It certainly contains elements of cultural and practical advice, and it does so through the story of newcomers to a strange landscape — omnipresent elements in the Icelandic sagas we looked at earlier. But Canadian Crusoes is fiction, and those early Norse sagas were not. However, I don’t think it matters. Enough actually history and geography creep in during the gazetteer-ish passages in the book to qualify it for saga-hood, I think, and besides that the Icelandic sagas are not without their own moments of fiction. Canadian Crusoes has its flaws, to be sure, and is almostly impossibly dated at this point (21st-century readers will wince, and more than once, as they make their way through it). As I have said, there are particular difficulties with many of the book’s portrayals of Aboriginal people, although my goodness there were a lot worse things being written on that subject at that time. But at its heart, Canadian Crusoes is a good story, full of cheerful and optimistic ideas about cooperation and friendship between people and peoples. As such, and despite its admittedly serious flaws, it has some enduring value and is worth checking out even today, I think.
Thank you for reading!