Narratives of Canadian Women

  • Mary McDonald-Rissanen
    In the Interval of the Wave: Prince Edward Island Women's Nineteenth- and Early Twentieth-Century Life Writing. McGill-Queen's University Press (purchase at
  • Althea Prince (Editor)
    Beyond the Journey: Women's Stories of Settlement and Community Building in Canada. Insomniac Press (purchase at

Mary McDonald-Rissanen’s In the Interval of the Wave provides a close reading of the historical nature as well as the literary and cultural value of diaries written by Prince Edward Island women in Canada during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the Prologue, McDonald-Rissanen gives credit for the book’s title to the PEI poet Anne Compton from a phrase extracted from one of her poems in Opening the Island (2002). Critically, McDonald-Rissanen maintains emotional distance in her presentation of a genre that enabled women to construct identities as subject rather than object. McDonald-Rissanen takes a sweeping view of the genre with a foundation built on in-depth historical and statistical research through her use of archival materials, which previously received little to no scholarly investigation. While she discusses the ‘scribblings’ (as diarist writer Lucy Maud Montgomery referred to her writing) of PEI women in a holistic manner, McDonald-Rissanen decidedly selects particular life writings to support her thesis.

Through her foundational discussion of the renowned literary figure of PEI, Lucy Maud Montgomery, and her own grandmother, Amy Darby Tanton Andrew, the author brings to light the “very ordinary lives” of PEI women through her investigation of unpublished diaries. McDonald-Rissanen contends—via a well-crafted thesis—that various aspects of the diaries such as the types of paper, handwriting styles, sketches, and linguistic turns of phrase(s) contribute to the “subversive” potential inherent in such writing. She further contends that these women used their writings subversively to more effectively negotiate Victorianism [which was adopted in 19th century PEI] in tandem with the challenges of their everyday lives. Extracting from the life-writings of eighteen diarists, McDonald-Rissanen is effective in presenting the reader with a respectable range of diarist writings so as to include various female subjects—pioneer, rural, teacher/professional, and urban bourgeois. In one chapter, she highlights the journeyings of five ‘travel’ diarists throughout the British Empire and Canada. What makes McDonald-Rissanen’s work most compelling and worthy of critical importance is her intertextual readings of the diaries with documents such as letters, other diaries, period newspapers, histories, and anecdotes, which further extend her emphasis on historical and statistical information in her cultural and literary discussion of PEI women’s life writings of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Essays and poems in Beyond the Journey: Women’s Stories of Settlement and Community Building in Canada emanate from various levels of culturally and politically informed emotion. In this collection, Althea Prince assembles the writing of an eclectic group of women from Albania, Antigua, Barbados, China, Germany, Grenada, India, Iran, Sri Lanka, and Jamaica. In so doing, Prince avoids the all too convenient literary pitfall of narrowly compartmentalizing the narratives of immigrant women in Canada. Of particular note is Prince’s demarcation of the voices within, as some are women who came to Canada as children (with their parent or parents) and others immigrated to Canada as adults. In the introduction, Prince provides a critical yet cursory and “exposing” mention of Canada’s immigration policy as one of exclusion rather than inclusion, which (may be) counter to more popular and pervasively held views.

The women’s narratives, as well as the poems of one of the contributors, are most compelling in that they resist singularity of focus and voice. Instead, the selections most accurately reflect the diversity of the Canadian landscape due (largely) to its immigrant population. This reflection is a testament to Prince’s ability as editor to selectively present narratives and poems not only of journeys that portray varied cultural, ethnic, and religious foundations but also of those that portray a full range of emotions—joy, anger, sadness, pain, and those shaded/combined subtleties of the same. At the core of Prince’s collection is her embedded thesis that systemic racism and gender bias continue to be ignored even in landscapes as diverse as many areas of Canada. She suggests that such writing as in Beyond the Journey: Women’s Stories of Settlement and Community Building in Canada can spark the dialectic of difference as opposed to cultural absorption and assimilation.

This review “Narratives of Canadian Women” originally appeared in Emerging Scholars. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 226 (Autumn 2015): 146-47.

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