Painted Fires. Wilfrid Laurier University Press
Flora Lyndsay; or, Passages in an Eventful Life. University of Ottawa Press and
Michael Peterman’s 2014 critical edition of Susanna Moodie’s Flora Lyndsay; or, Passages in an Eventful Life is an excellent example of its kind. Thorough bibliographical research, comprehensive commentary, and clear presentation make it an outstanding instalment within the generally high-quality Canadian Literature Collection (CLC) published by University of Ottawa Press under the editorship of Dean Irvine.
First published in two volumes by Richard Bentley in 1854, Flora Lyndsay is the prequel to Roughing It in the Bush. This lightly-fictionalized record of the immigration of the Moodies (renamed the Lyndsays) from Southwold to Upper Canada in 1832 recounts the small family’s decision to emigrate, delays to their departure, their month-long stay in Edinburgh awaiting final passage, and the dreary passage itself. A cast of colourful characters includes Flora’s “true friend” Mary Parnell and domineering neighbour Wilhemina Carr in Southwold; Captain Williams of the brig Anne and its stowaways Mr. Lootie and Stephen Corrie; and Noah Cotton, the murderer whose story Moodie added to fill out volume two. As Peterman points out, this last is rather out of place; while he frowns on the contrast between the tale’s melodrama and the lighter fare around it, however, I found its sensationalism entertaining and its inclusion consistent with the anthological style of the text, which presents vignettes by and about a wide range of persons encountered on Flora’s journey.
This edition takes the 1854 Bentley publication as copy-text. Critical apparatus includes a multi-part introduction from Peterman explaining copy-text choice and other extant versions, the contexts of the novel’s composition, and its scholarly importance; an “Explanatory Notes” section explicating cultural, historical, and autobiographical references; and a “Textual Notes” list indicating alterations to the 1855 American edition published by Dewitt and Davenport. Peterman’s work is detailed without being overwhelming, and the result is a clean reading text with a wealth of available but unobtrusive critical material. The edition should do much to bring Flora Lyndsay back into use and into critical conversation.
The 2014 edition of Nellie McClung’s Painted Fires published in the nascent Early Canadian Literature (ECL) Series at Wilfrid Laurier University Press provides a fruitful point of comparison. Painted Fires is more a reading edition than a critical one; it follows something of a facsimile model, reproducing the 1925 Thomas Allen (Toronto) publication with very little alteration. Like later New Canadian Library editions, the text of the novel appears before critical commentary (save a brief preface from ECL Series Editor Benjamin Lefebvre) and is followed by an afterword.
Painted Fires follows Finnish immigrant Helmi Milander through the trials of immigration to Canada in the years leading up to World War I. The story is rife with betrayals, misunderstandings, and dramatic ironies that begin almost immediately, when the beloved aunt Helmi tries to join in Minnesota parcels her off alone to Winnipeg. Once there, Helmi’s English teacher sends her on an ill-timed errand to pick up heroin from a Chinese restaurant during a police raid, and the girl is apprehended. Having broken out of prison, Helmi’s reputation suffers further when she takes a job at another Chinese restaurant in a nearby mining community. Mistrust between Helmi and her gold-fevered husband Jack is only resolved when Jack is assured of his wife’s fidelity by a fellow soldier in a German POW camp, and Helmi’s name is finally cleared when Jack’s sister, who turns out to be the fateful English teacher, reveals her part in the girl’s troubles. Despite its happy ending, the novel’s bleak view of immigrant life firmly debunks what McClung, in The Stream Runs Fast, called the “false flattery” with which European immigration agencies were promoting Canada in the early twentieth century.
While the preface provides little information beyond choice of copy-text, the afterword from Cecily Devereux—whose Growing a Race: Nellie L. McClung and the Fiction of Eugenic Feminism testifies to her expertise—is more satisfying. As in Growing a Race, Devereux here notes the concerns with racial homogeneity, naturalization, and the role of women in racial nation-building that Painted Fires shares with McClung’s Pearlie Watson books and some of her shorter fiction. Unlike Peterman’s edition, this one does not offer an extensive critical apparatus—no explanatory notes are provided and no collation has been done—but like the CLC Flora Lyndsay, the ELC Painted Fires brings an important and sometimes neglected piece of early Canadian fiction back into view in an easily readable and teachable form. Both recommend themselves to scholars of early Canlit as well as to those interested in current trends in editing and republishing its works.