Sisters in the Wilderness … and well … Sisters.

Canadian writer and biographer Charlotte Gray wrote a fabulous book a few years ago called Sisters in the Wilderness. Gray’s book is a double biography of iconic early Canadian writers and sisters Susanna Moodie and Catharine Parr Traill, authors of Roughing it in the Bush and The Backwoods of Canada respectively.

These names are touchstones for anyone who has studied Canadian Literature, and according to Gray, the sisters are frequently referenced or alluded to in tons of current Canadian fiction, including the works of Margaret Atwood and Carol Shields. The sisters are cultural icons in Canada because they came here determined to make a great success and, like most Canadian heroes, they had to settle for survival instead of triumph. And here I make a little bow to Margaret Atwood whose book Survival helped many, including me, to understand Canadian literary archetypes… including the difference between American literature where the hero triumphs and Canadian lit where he doesn’t “get dead.”

I read the writing of Moodie and Parr Traill in university and have often thought about their work which chronicles how utterly unprepared they were for the reality of nineteenth century Canada … which was, quite literally, the backwoods. Wilderness. And I’ve also wondered at times when portaging or paddling in Algonquin Park what it must have been like to emigrate here, have a family, carve out a meager living and know that it’s likely that you will never, never again see the family and country you left behind.

nineteenth century cabin near Algonquin Park
The restored nineteenth century  ranger cabin at Basin Depot, near Algonquin Park.
So, how comforting it must have been for the two sisters to have each other. Their families eventually lived on adjacent homesteads. The sisters apparently had a close relationship and they certainly had common values and interests, if not personalities. Sisters can come in handy like that, even if they don’t live nearby.

What would we do without our sisters? I have two big sisters. They’re very different from each other and my relationship with each is different from my relationship with the other.

One sister lives far away. We share a passion for books and all of our lives we have talked about what we are reading, what we’ve read, or plan to read. She used to tell me stories when I was little, her own original stories. I still remember some of them. I also remember the children’s book she wrote when her own children were small. So on extended long distance phone calls we talk about books. Or we talk about writing. I taught creative writing all of  my teaching career; I loved teaching, but my writing class was my passion. My sister is a poet. Now that her children are grown, she has more time to devote to her passion, so she attends writing retreats and belongs to a writer’s group. She has had the courage to put herself  “out there” and has had several poems published. I’m very proud of her work. And of her.

My sisters, my brother, a cousin, and me in 1958
1958. That’s me with the enormous head, my two sisters, my older brother and a cousin who’s the same age as me.

My other sister lives quite close to me. She is a successful business woman and pharmacist. We talk about work a lot. About being a “boss.” About working with people and building and maintaining an effective team. I was a department head for the last half of my career and team building was key in doing my job effectively. We also talk about our need to do a job well and about lifelong learning and working to develop new skills even after you have been doing a job for years. My sister has never stopped trying to be better at her job. I really admire that. And her ability in the past few years to roll with the punches, and never lose her sense of humour. If we’re not talking about work, we’re planning a shopping trip. We love to shop, although I now have much more time for that than she does. We constantly talk about clothes. What’s new this season. What I’ve bought. What she needs for a conference in Florida. We laugh (and moan) a lot when we shop… especially when bathing suit shopping. We complain how we really need to work on losing that little spare tire, and then we go for lunch. Ha.

What would I do without my sisters? I look to them for support and guidance; I need them to commiserate with or simply to share my joy or my suffering. I need them to laugh at my jokes, to listen to my whining and not to hang up on me when I am a pain.

My sisters and me, 1989
1989. My wedding day. Three sisters…with very large shoulder pads. It WAS the 80’s after all.

And so you might be asking what does all this have to do with the book Sisters in the Wilderness. Well, truthfully, not a lot. I started talking about Charlotte Gray’s book so I could explain the origin of the title of my blog. Sisters in the wilderness, facing the unimaginable dangers and privations of the 19th century Canadian bush… me in the wilderness on my very first canoe trip… facing the unimaginable (to me) privations of Algonquin Park. (What? There’s no where to plug in my blow dryer? ) Could anyone be as unprepared for what faced them in the bush as Susanna Moodie and Catharine Parr Traill? Well, yea….. me. But I must reiterate, I do not wear my high heels in the bush. It’s just a metaphor!

So thinking and  talking about Susanna Moodie and her sister Catharine Parr Traill lead me to my own sisters. And how much I value them. Although, truth be told, I don’t think either of them would be much good to me in the bush. In my heart of hearts, I know they’d want to bring their blow dryers too.

What do your sisters mean to you?


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17 thoughts on “Sisters in the Wilderness … and well … Sisters.”

  1. Well…. not all sisters are close! Mine is only 18 months younger and growing up we were close. And then we divided. We are very very different people, have led fairly different lives and, to be truthful, I think spouses play into the relationship as we get older. Of course, this is true for any couple, not just siblings. We're friendly and, as an MD, she has been very helpful in several cases..but close? Not really. I envy sisters who are close, so enjoy yours!

    1. Spouses do play into sister relationships. My husband has little in common with my sisters' husbands. So sister visits are usually just sisters. More fun for us that way.

  2. My younger sister is very important to me in all aspects of life…she shares with me the tragedy of losing our mother when we were young and a father who has chosen not to get involved in our lives. We share our thoughts and feelings. We have many interests in common from creating beautiful gardens to fashion to creating beautiful items for our homes to sharing fun times with family and friends. We are separated by 1500 miles but we are in touch every day…she's my sister who is also a very close friend…what would I do without her?

  3. Lucky you!
    I am an only child and I always wanted to have a sibling,so I am really close to my friends during all periods of my life!

  4. Leslie in Oregon

    I have one sister, who is six years younger than I and lives about an hour's drive from me. We love each other very much and share, with our brother, living through the joys and tragedies of our birth family. While I like my sister, we lead very different lives and have very different values in some respects, and in some ways that limits what we can share. I regret the latter and try to build bridges to her, as she does to me. We laugh a lot when we are together.

    I'll have to read "Sisters in the Wilderness." My grandfather emigrated from Minnesota to Canada when he was 14 (in about 1901), to homestead east of Edmonton with his older brother. My grandmother emigrated from Idaho to central Alberta with her family about the same time. Although my grandparents built a beautiful farmhouse in the 1920s, including a bathroom for the day when the house would have running water, they never had electricity or running water until they left the farm and retired in a nearby town in the late 1960s. The stories my father told about growing up on the farm are stories of very hard work and…survival. The "pioneer" stories my grandfather told about his life were enthralling to his grandchildren. Someday, I hope to gain the Canadian citizenship that my grandparents wanted to bequeath to me.

    1. Stu talks about a farm family that lived near his grandparents' cottage in the fifties. The farm was in the middle of the bush near Algonquin Park. The house had no electricity until the early sixties. Cattle had to be moved from one isolated field to another on a path through the trees and dogs for protection from the bears. I also remember a few families down east when I was very young who still used an outside hand pump for water. We were talking about that the other day when we were camping. The memories of old farmhouses with a bucket and "dipper" in the kitchen, and the metallic taste of water directly from the old hand pump. And our grandparents' stories of their youth. And we wondered if kids these days still like to listen to their grandparents stories.

  5. I would love to have a sister! I do have sister in laws via my three older brothers and a niece who's close in age, so, sort of like a sister! No one who grew up with me though, in the same family. My brothers have always been wonderful …They definitely spoilt me when as was younger and I've always known they're "there for me" as I am for them. My strongest female relationships are definitely with my daughter and the one I had with my mum. I have two amazing close friends too, so I don't feel as though I missed out completely! …just a little maybe 🙂
    I've enjoyed this post Sue.

  6. I have three sisters . Two within twenty minutes drive , the other in South Africa . I'm most like the one in SA but get on best with the nearest two . We are quite different in our interests & lifestyles but share exactly the same sense of humour & lots of memories . When your parents have gone you need to make an effort to keep in touch , mum asked us to do this when she was very ill & we do . We have regular days together for shopping & lunch plus holidays without hubbies every year . I feel the SA sister missed out dreadfully .

    1. That's such a good point, Wendy. My mum worries that we won't stay in touch as much when she's gone. I share interests (different ones) with each sister, but they have little in common with each other. I'd love to go on a hubby-less holiday with my sisters one day. It would be a riot, I think. But what with financial constraints, work, and other commitments this likely won't happen.

      Glad your glitch is solved and you're back commenting.

  7. I have but one sister, and we are all that is left of our apparently short lived family. We are very different, but we learned to be close when we began to care for our parents, both with dementia, and then for our dying younger brother. It is relationship[ that i treasure, and I wish that our parents could have known that after all the years of squabble, that they had brought us together, although not in the way that they hoped it would happen.

    I wish that you would include more Canadian writers for your literature starves "sisters" on the other side of the border. It sometimes seems strange that I am so well versed in British literature, and not nearly so knowledgable about Canada, despite living in a border state. You could be that bridge!

    And next year, rent a cabin. Its time. You will enjoy the vacation all the more if you can sleep in a real bed, and the canoe and the fish will all still be there for you.

    1. You and your sister must be very close now after weathering so much adversity together. Thanks for the suggestion about Canadian lit. I have been giving it short shrift these days. And I'm about to remedy that very soon:)

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