The Journals of Susanna Moodie
Margaret Atwood/Charles Pachter
MacFarlane, Walter & Ross, 1997
First published in The Haliburton County Echo, County Life
Review by: Kerry Riley
Despite its apparently unequivocal title, this book is neither a set of journals, nor is it written by Ms. Moodie. Rather, it is a unique collaboration between old friends, Margaret Atwood and Charles Pachter, which explores, in art and poetry, the forging of a Canadian soul through the pioneer experience.
As befits any examination of our Canadian mythology by two of our cultural icons, this project had a portentous inception. According to David Staines in the book’s forward, it was while pursuing doctoral studies at Harvard, that Ms. Atwood experienced a vivid dream about Susanna Moodie which prompted her to investigate the writings of this pioneer woman from Ontario, in whom, up ’til then, she had had little interest.
Atwood found a great ambivalence towards Canada expressed in the “gaps” or “things left unsaid,” in Susanna’s writing. This insight helped her form her own understanding of the Canadian character, which, Atwood feels, exists in a state of “violent duality.” A duality formed, in part, by a simultaneous fascination with, and fear of, our immense landscapes and by the conflict between the “old” and “new” allegiances experienced by most immigrants. In her own words, “We are all immigrants to this place even if we were born here: the county is too big for anyone to inhabit completely, and in the parts unknown to us we move in fear, exiles and invaders…”
The personality that escaped from between Ms. Moodie’s lines of prose haunted Atwood, and soon after her dream, she began a series of poems inspired by Ms. Moodie’s writings. The collection, published in 1970, was entitled, “The Journals of Susanna Moodie,” and proved to be one of her most important collections of poetry.
Charles Pachter, the Canadian artist perhaps most famous for his depiction of the queen riding a moose, first met Margaret Atwood at a summer camp where they both worked as teenaged instructors. They have been friends ever since.
With Atwood’s encouragement, Pachter, in 1980, produced a handmade, limited edition printing of The Journals of Susanna Moodie, which included Pachter’s own pictorial interpretations of the poems. Only 120 copies were made. The 1997 facsimile version of this 1980 publication, which we are currently considering, was initiated in 1995 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the debut of Atwood’s collection.
I’m not certain I agree with Atwood’s take on the Canadian psyche, but the poems, which consider Ms. Moodie’s experiences from her arrival, as a genteel Englishwoman, to the wilds of Ontario, through to old age, death, and beyond, are accessible, haunting and evocative. Pachter’s art work, stark and surreal, does unarguably illuminate some essential element of each poem, enlarging its significance and effect. In this work, the visual and verbal arts have successfully melded into something larger.
In the final poem, the long-dead Susanna turns up as an old woman on a present day Toronto bus, commenting negatively on the wilderness of the city. As Atwood notes, Susanna has come full circle, now “the spirit of the land she once hated.” As this spirit, she cautions that however much we may attempt to bury her under a veneer of concrete and cables, “I have my ways of getting through.” Considering her current renaissance, of which her influential role in Atwood’s highly successful ninth novel, Alias Grace, and the recent presentation of The Bush Ladies, by the Highlands Concert Series are all a part, I’d say she certainly does have her ways.
Echoing the values of the 1980 limited edition, this a handsome volume, complete with its own book sleeve, and beautiful, glossy reproductions of Pachter’s art work; each poem inhabiting its own page. Its elaborate history makes it something of a Canadian cultural curiosity. Definitely a specialty item. One which should appeal, however, to anyone with an interest in Canadian culture, Moodie minutiae, good poetry, or beautiful things.