Paving the Road
- Jan Hare (Author) and Jean Barman (Author)
Good Intentions Gone Awry: Emma Crosby and the Methodist Mission on the Northwest Coast. University of British Columbia Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by A. Mary Murphy
In 1874, Emma Crosby got married and headed west from Ontario with her husband to take the Christian gospel to the Tsimshian people of British Columbia’s northwest coast. Her letters home to her mother span a quarter century and make up the bulk and the foundation of this book, which will prove valuable to a variety of readers. As with any collection of letters home, maybe especially those to mothers, Crosby’s century-old letters are striking for how much is not said, how brave and optimistic a tone is struck, and how many issues and fears are evaded. A missionary wife has many responsibilities and concerns, so it takes an active reader to sort the various threads Crosby is working here. Certainly, there is a cumulative poignancy in her loneliness, never made explicit by complaints (heaven forbid), but always an undercurrent in her remarks regarding when letters go, when they come, how long a lapse, how many, from whom. She lives from steamship to steamship.
Along with letters, the steamship brings people and supplies—the Governor General on one occasion and a cow on another!—and Crosby’s dependence on that link to the outside world is made very clear. Jan Hare and Jean Barman provide editorial transitions, mostly to clarify situational contexts surrounding specific letters. These intertextual notes are very useful, although a little more guidance in each entry would have helped in the sorting process. It would be useful to have additional direction rather than plain data to help readers with analysis and synthesis. This help arrives in the last third of the book.
Crosby’s letters open up discussion of “cross-cultural misunderstanding,” as the book so delicately puts it, and “good intentions,” among many other things, by revealing the earnestness of the missionaries, their interactions with the local people, and most especially by showing the moment when the personal becomes institutional. The mutation of Emma Crosby’s genuine concern for a few local girls, whom she takes into her home, into an externally funded incarceration is inexorable and inevitable. Basic notions of racial, cultural, and spiritual superiority are the foundation of the missionary enterprise, and these assumptions are made clear in Crosby’s narratives; the Tsimshian tolerance of the Crosbys and their work is an abundant irony that accompanies Crosby’s accounts. Hare and Barman have done an admirable job of making sure that Emma Crosby does not become a one-dimensional figure. They allow the daughter, wife, and mother to flourish alongside the missionary, so that she is a sympathetic character, and while we all have heard that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions,” there is much to be learned from how that road is traveled, by whom, and how that journey is begun. This book is no simplistic condemnation of Emma Crosby’s life and efforts.
Ironically, Crosby becomes a much clearer character once her letters stop and her editors are required to take up the writing. The first six chapters of Good Intentions Gone Awry are one kind of work (edited letters) and the last three are another (critical biography). This is because Hare and Barman have a different set of obligations than Crosby did. For one thing, they set Emma’s self-effacing and sacrificial self up against her husband’s self-promoting and egotistical self. Only when Emma no longer actively conceals do her editors feel the liberty to reveal, and while this is an understandable strategy, it may suggest a greater sense of responsibility to Emma Crosby than to those now reading her letters. Many questions and frustrations could be answered and forestalled with a modified organizational principle, making the reading experience more satisfying.
It may be, however, that drawing Crosby more fully from the start would have put the book in danger of overshadowing core social issues. Perhaps readers would be so stricken by intimate details of extreme isolation and child mortality that the fact of cultural imperialism, made most manifest in the story of residential schools, would not have been exposed as the insidious idea cum reality that it was. Ultimately, the book does satisfy, and it does so without pretending to be the last word on anything.
- Reading India by Vijay Mishra
Books reviewed: Media and the Transformation of Religion in South Asia by Lawrence A. Babb and Susan S. Wadley and Word, Sound, Image: The Life of the Tamil Text by Saskia Kersenboom
- Paving the Road by A. Mary Murphy
Books reviewed: Good Intentions Gone Awry: Emma Crosby and the Methodist Mission on the Northwest Coast by Jean Barman and Jan Hare
- Hearing Voices by Klay Dyer
Books reviewed: Public Men and Virtuous Women: The Gendered Languages of Religion and Politics in Upper Canada, 1791-1850 by Cecilia Morgan and I Bless You in My Heart: Selected Correspondence of Catharine Parr Traill by Carl Ballstadt, Elizabeth Hopkins, and Michael Peterman
- Ecce Homo by Kerry McSweeney
Books reviewed: Testament by Nino Ricci
- Muslim Women by Heiko Henkel
Books reviewed: The Muslim Veil in North America: Issues and Debates by Sajida S. Alvi, H. Hoodfar, and S. McDonough and Majalis al-ilm: Sessions of Knowledge. Reclaiming and Representing the Lives of Muslim Women by Salima Bhimani
MLA: Murphy, A. Mary. Paving the Road. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 25 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #194 (Autumn 2007), Visual/Textual Intersections. (pg. 131 - 132)
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