A Forest That Merits Much Visiting

Revisiting “Our Forest Home”: The Immigrant Letters of Frances Stewart

By: Jodi Aoki  (Editor)

Dundurn Press, Jun 2011, 288 pp. $35.00 CDN

Reviewed by: James Onusko

 If you seek new vistas into the nineteenth century, and in particular, how some immigrant women in Canada coped with the vicissitudes of everyday life, then Jodi Aoki’s edited collection of Frances Stewart’s letters will not disappoint. With skill, profound thoughtfulness and empathy, Aoki allows readers to come to know Stewart as a complex woman with very real flaws and many strengths.

Jodi Aoki has been an integral part of the Trent University’s Archives for more than 20 years. She holds an M.A. in Canadian Studies and lives in Bethany, just outside of Peterborough. She has written articles and presented conference papers on nineteenth-century social history with an emphasis on the immigrant writings of women in Ontario.

Frances Stewart is part of a larger group of women, from nineteenth and early twentieth century Canada, who have left a lasting imprint on Canadian literature. The works of Susanna Moodie, Catharine Parr Traill, and E. Pauline Johnson continue to allow us to view this critical time in Canadian history through lenses not often offered. Stewart’s letters, certainly seeming to have an eye to a broader readership than just family and friends, are a link to a time that becomes increasingly distant, in many ways, from contemporary Canada. The letters are often filled with tenderness, longing, and profound sadness. However, Aoki provides us with letters that display Stewart’s keen wit, humour, pure joy and an ability to persevere through some very challenging life experiences. Despite her ‘alien’ status in the Canadian bush, Stewart’s spirit seems unwavering at most turns. It is inspiring to me that it was ongoing female friendships with family members and friends, that seemed to sustain Stewart the most through her most trying times. Make no mistake, this is a gendered story, and one that remains woefully under-represented in the ‘our’ Canadian historical record.

In this poignant excerpt, an aged Stewart, within weeks of her death, writes to her granddaughter:

Dear Birdie, do you know I am very apt to go to sleep when I am writing or reading and I am always vexed at being so lazy. And so my letter has been neglected but I can’t help it. My eye was sore but it is nearly well today and now it is so near dinnertime that I must pull all my papers and pens away as I am rather more inclined to eat than to write just at present but I hope you will write to me soon again. I have not had a letter from Illinois for a long time. I think Fannie Hay had one from Mama. And now dear Goodbye.

Believe me your very fond

Grandma F. Stewart

I did not find much fault in Aoki’s collection, although an overarching criticism is that I would have liked to read more from her own hand. The author’s introductory pages, to the different phases of Stewart’s life, range from three or four pages to a dozen. This context is wonderful, and twelve to fifteen pages of this, linking Stewart to broader Ontario and national narratives, may have helped many younger readers, and others not familiar with the histories of this period, to fit Stewart into these wider streams. There is a larger discussion of class that Aoki broaches, but does not delve into with great depth. Granted, Stewart did not seem to give this much thought in her writings, but more of Aoki’s analysis of class as an analytic category would have been welcomed. The visual images of the Stewart family, artifacts, and so forth were also relatively scarce. A lengthier section of these representations, higher image resolution, larger in size, and on glossy paper would have been an improvement. The book’s imagery did bring added texture and fullness to the words of both Aoki and Stewart. Finally, I would have liked added discussion within an international context from Aoki. Linking Stewart’s experiences to a possible transnational experience of American, Australian, and other colonial ‘settlers’ of this period, even briefly, would have added nuance and even more substance to an already excellent collection.

In the final analysis, there is so much more to like about this edited collection than dislike. Aoki’s book will be of interest to a wide range of readers. Students of early Ontario history will find a rich collection of social history focusing on women, families, and immigrant settler lives. General readers will find it accessible and compelling. It is a wonderful antidote for those who have grown tired of vanilla-filled political histories, and the re-tellings of ‘great’ men in nineteenth-century history. While this collection does not focus on the experiences of immigrant men in Ontario, I welcome this. As other feminist historians have argued for more than a generation now, that story has been told more than enough, and can be found in myriad publications. I will be filled with dismay with the next announcement of the upcoming publication of a ‘new’ look at the ‘extraordinary’ Sir John A. Macdonald volume that is likely sitting on the keyboard of some aging anglophile. Scholars and the curious general reader alike, will find much to relish in this edited collection that provides a wonderful opportunity to connect to a past that will speak to those among us who leave our homes, at times with much to risk, yet so much to gain.

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