Test, Quest, Conquest
- Greg Gillespie (Author)
Hunting for Empire: Narratives of Sport in Rupert's Land, 1840-70. University of British Columbia Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Heather Robertson (Author)
Measuring Mother Earth: How Joe the Kid Became Tyrrell of the North. McClelland & Stewart Ltd. (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Hugh Brewster (Editor) and Michael Peterman (Author)
Sisters in Two Worlds: A Visual Biography of Susanna Moodie and Catharine Parr Traill. Doubleday Canada (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Cheryl Cundell
An interesting and attractive biography, Sisters in Two Worlds focuses on the Strickland sisters, early Canadian writers, Catharine Parr Traill and Susanna Moodie. Marking the milestones and entering the milieus of the sisters’ lives, Michael Peterman’s work is a detailed and feeling narration augmented by visuals that are part evocation of place and past and part portrait gallery. The first chapter depicting the comfort, education, and inspiration of the sisters’ family life in rural Suffolk, England, ends with their father’s death and, thus, brings the formative years together with the economic necessity that propelled the sisters to write “as a possible source of income.” Although Susanna’s path takes her to London while Catharine remains at the family home, with marriages that seem to reflect their characters (Susanna’s passionate one with John Dunbar Moodie and Catharine’s pragmatic one with Thomas Traill), the scene is set for their paths to join again in immigration, “The Voyage Out,” across the Atlantic, into the St. Lawrence, and on to Upper Canada, where life-history turns into a story of struggle, as illness, misfortune, and poverty act as counterpoint to the sisters’ sometimes successful writing ventures. Not only focussing on Catharine and Susanna but also offering glimpses of the other Strickland family members, Peterman’s work both recreates family relations and broadens the view of the immigrant experience by providing, in Samuel Strickland, the figure of “The Successful Pioneer,” a foil to his sisters and, in Agnes and Eliza, writers of royal biographies, reminders of the genteel world that Catharine and Susanna left behind. Although writing unifies the sisters’ comfortable Suffolk beginnings with their struggles in Upper Canada, the contrast of these circumstances makes the idea that, in their mature years, Catharine and Susanna became “well-known figures in the literary life of the developing colony” all the more remarkable, for immigration was not an opportunity but a test for these two sisters who, as just-married women, departed from England in 1832.
As engaging a biography as its central figure was far-ranging, Measuring Mother Earth is both a depiction of the adventures and personas of Joseph Burr Tyrrell and a delicious sampling of Canada past. Less conventional than a strictly chronological account of the subject’s life, Heather Robertson’s work is, at times, travel writing as much as biography, and not only imaginatively recreates but is also peppered with excerpts from Tyrrell’s field notes and the writing of previous explorers, most notably David Thompson, whose manuscript Tyrrell brought to print. Beginning her work with Martin Frobisher’s sixteenth-century search for a Northwest Passage and gold, Robertson not only situates Tyrrell firmly within the tradition of British exploration but also hints at the other thing that structured Tyrrell’s life-story: speculation. An evocation of the time when geology was “a controversial new field of exploration,” the biography follows Tyrrell from his first survey in the North-West territories in 1883, under the supervision of Dr. George Dawson, through his own surveys, during which he discovered the fossilized skeleton of Albertosaurus sarcophagus and the Keewatin glacier. Although exploration is the focus of the biography as of the life, exploration is momentarily interrupted for a brief dalliance with romance, which, after more exploration, leads Tyrrell into a marriage, largely an epistolary one, with Mary Edith “Dollie” Carey. Then, after fifteen years with the Geological Survey of Canada, Tyrrell is geologist-turned-prospector and runaway husband in the feverish atmosphere of the Klondike gold rush. While Tyrrell’s Dawson City years are disastrously debt-ridden, speculating in Northern Ontario mines pays off in his later life. Achieving a fine balance of documentation and imagination, Robertson portrays Tyrrell as a man who, although he is able to change personas to suit circumstances, is never able to develop as a person and, therefore, traipses from one unfulfilled quest to another until the accumulated experience of his misadventures bequeaths him a kind of stature. The portrayal is an antidote for the much-too-celebratory national view and proof that great men are, indeed, made—if not fabricated.
Much in contrast with the elegiac or celebratory narratives of immigration and exploration is Hunting for Empire, Greg Gillespie’s scrutiny of the British imperial venture in the now Canadian northwest. Although Gillespie does not name Mary Louise Pratt in his introduction, his study of “the narratives of upper-class British men who travelled across the western interior of Rupert’s Land for sport and exploration between the 1840s and the early 1870s” is a study of ideology as discourse modelled on and informed by Pratt’s Imperial Eyes. While it addresses an interesting topic in the study of imperial ideology, the text, despite its frequent use of “specific,” lacks specificity and would benefit from a more detailed discussion of the narratives under scrutiny and less repetition. Supplemented with figures from the “hunting and exploration” narratives, the text is divided into six chapters, five that address how these narratives function as messages of empire from the authors to their audiences, and a sixth that shows how these messages are transformed for “corporate advertising brochures” for the Canadian Pacific Railway. In beginning and ending his study with the framing device of his childhood memory of the hunting paraphernalia of the “Sportsman’s Barbershop” in Grimsby, Ontario, Gillespie not only provides an explanation for his interest in hunting but also suggests that the ideology that he scrutinizes can be traced to the present. Beside the difference in period and modification of topic, Gillespie’s argument may be distinguished from Pratt’s because he sees cartography and natural history working in tandem to naturalize imperial expansion and because he addresses what he calls “the prefatory paradox,” or the ways by which big-game hunters both establish and undermine their scientific authority in the introductory messages of their narratives. Nonetheless, Gillespie asserts that, although the hunter of big game might have undermined his authority as narrator, as protagonist, he participated in an elitist exercise that demonstrated both the physical and moral superiority of the British gentleman and depicted Rupert’s Land as a simultaneously exotic and familiar space calling for conquest.
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MLA: Cundell, Cheryl. Test, Quest, Conquest. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 18 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #197 (Summer 2008), Predators and Gardens. (pg. 175 - 176)
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