The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Review: Clearing in the West

By Anna McDougall

As soon as Heritage Park opens its gates to summer explorers, I am among the first clipping along the boardwalk, over the train track, and on to Main Street. Children in tow, I linger at the yellow ranch house and the dairy barn, immersed in romantic images of pioneering life in the west. In my daydreams I underestimate the harsh day to day struggles, looking past the physical labor that must have been more tiring than I can possibly imagine. In the midst of my hectic 2006 mothering moments juggling the multitude of opportunities available to enrich my children’s lives and balancing constant chauffeuring responsibilities with the barrage of X Box, Ipod, and DVD distractions, the straightforward nature of life at the turn of the century looks like peace to me.

I took it one step further this spring and picked up Nellie McClung’s Clearing in the West: My Own Story. This edition, re-released last year to commemorate the seventieth anniversary of the original publication is introduced beautifully by Aritha van Herk. I found the escape I was longing within the first dozen pages and set to draw the story out, enjoying just a few pages at a time, following along leisurely with my old atlas, as the Mooney family moved from Owen Sound to their new home on the prairies. As I discovered McClung’s talent for beautiful prose in her expertly detailed descriptions and the intellect evident in her perceptions even as young as six, I realized the inspiration available in this memoir and found I couldn’t put the book down until I’d finished all 417 pages.

The story begins literally the day of the author’s birth in 1873 as the first chapter examines the anticipation felt in the family home, the preparations required for welcoming a new baby, and the male reaction when “another” girl is born. McClung takes the reader on an intimate tour of her life at home with her five older siblings and her parents as they settle land near a town called Millford in southern Manitoba. The community builds schools, receives ministers, hosts Saturday night parties, and worries about politics and railroads and crops. Her story is accessible as it covers the domestic and social details of her community but it also confronts the tough issues of the day. For example, during the trial and execution of Louis Riel, she explains how she and her classmates dramatize the conflict in the school yard, she of course taking the role of Indian Chief Poundmaker.

That the entire memoir occurs during McClung’s first twenty years is significant. The rich illustrations of her childhood experiences are impressive in their detail whether the accuracy is due to a sharp memory or thorough subsequent research. As a writer with dreams of publishing a novel set in my own time, I was inspired by this quality and the foresight McClung had to include information readers a century later would find meaningful. She takes time to note the appreciation expressed by her teacher as he receives a homemade gift from her mother.

“…they are a symbol of an era in our history that is passing…think of what these socks mean: wool on a sheep’s back, converted into sock’s on a man’s feet, all done by one pair of skilful hands…you (have created) something beautiful as well as useful.”

I had to remind myself over and over that McClung wrote the book in the 1930s. She recounts dialogue and sentiment so clearly it is as if she were writing today about something that happened last week.

Like any good Canadian writer, McClung worships the land in her prose detailing the unique scents of prairie grasses, the beauty of open fields, and personality of the winds. Throughout her writing - rain or shine – her positive outlook is present.

I loved the winter scene…Plenty of snow meant moisture for the soil, and the deadly frost killed noisome insects and made possible No. 1 Hard wheat, which was our fortune. There was a kindness in the cold. It made food taste better, fires burn more brightly, and brought people into closer family circles. I knew what the psalmist meant when he spoke of the virtuous woman who was “not afraid of the snow for her household.” She knew it drove her family into the circle of lamplight and made it easier to get the children to do their homework, and strengthened the bonds of affection.

But in heat too she found pleasure;

...wide-open country heat, windy heat that dried the sloughs and cracked the ground, but the air was always fresh and sweet with honest earthy odours.

Clearing the West illustrates how McClung’s political attitudes were formed with respect to the role of women and the danger of alcohol to the community. At the age of eight, she is shocked to learn that while the women in her family voice their political preferences at home, they do not have the opportunity to vote. It is young Nellie that is the most outspoken of all and is often quieted by her mother who holds an “old world reverence for men”. Throughout the book, McClung regards women in her community with bewilderment and understands early that she is a different sort of girl. She feels that she will never be content raising a family on her husband’s farm and is frustrated by this quality for she knows the challenges ahead.

McClung contemplates the fate of a girl her age who finds herself pregnant before marriage.

Marrying and raising children was not the only thing a woman could do. Even in that, how unfair life and society were to women, laying all responsibility on them and giving them no training for their work, and then, if they made mistakes, punishing them beyond all reason…

There are times she begrudges her contemporaries who embrace the traditional life suggesting that their lives are uncomplicated. This sentiment brings to mind the debate that still rages today as many women face the same dilemma, albeit with fewer social restrictions.

The first woman activist McClung meets is Mrs. Brown who lectures her with,

”The women here are asleep…The comfortably married woman is the most selfish woman in the world…..Then I saw you and I had a sudden gleam of hope (in your) original cast of mind….Maybe I can get you interested and you’ll do something – who knows?

and later,

“It’s a man-made world, young lady as you will find. Even nature works against women, by making them smaller and weaker, giving them all the human ailments and a few of their own; and society has taken up the good work by laying heavier obligations on women and a higher standard of morality.”

Many of McClung’s forty-four chapters can stand alone as short stories each sharing an important aspect of the world in which she was raised. I found these stories reassuring. Historical writing strives to identify the commonality of human condition across time. I related easily to McClung's honest musings about problems she faced, so much so that it was difficult to believe these events took place more than a hundred years ago. I was left with the confidence that I am not alone. Not as a woman. Not as a writer.

She draws interesting connections from incidents and perceptions in childhood to the place she eventually takes in history as an adult. One of these was her love of literature. McClung had limited access to reading materials, but she read Milton’s poetry and with her sister, wrote verse while passing time with mundane chores. How this revelation fueled my faith! Often I feel I’m so far behind in my reading, blaming the short days. But to look at McClung’s history is an important reminder. She didn’t have the opportunity to make every moment count. Where did she go for inspiration? She observed the piece of world where she made her home. When young Nellie was obliged to stay home from school to herd cattle, she wrote poetry; when she walked two miles to school, she did it with a book in her hand, when she helped her mother serve guests in their home, she took in the political arguments and formed her own questions. Young Nellie made due with her surroundings and allowed them to inspire her future.

It wasn’t McClung’s education or her access to information which made her a great thinker in adulthood. In fact she was ashamed at her lack of reading experience in her late teens. It was her confidence to question the relationships and processes around her, her bright mind creating new ways of solving challenges which faced her community, and her ability to see beauty in her environment which could soothe life’s hardships that inspired her later thinking.

The gift of a Dickens collection from her brother one Christmas elevated her passion for writing to an ambition.

I knew …what a writer can be at his best: an interpreter, a reveler of secrets, a heavenly surgeon, a sculptor who can bring an angel out of stone.

And I wanted to write; to do for the people around me what Dickens had done for his people. I wanted to be a voice for the voiceless as he had been a defender of the weak, a flaming fire that would consume the dross that encrusts human soul, a spring of sweet water beating up through all this bitter world to refresh and nourish souls that were ready to faint.

McClung’s second memoir, The Stream Runs Fast is next on my reading list. I am eager to discover how this young feminist who once said she would never marry or have children and dreaded the thought of attending political meetings in dusty halls where she was unwelcome, finds herself as a mother of five and a leader of social change.

Nellie McClung's Published Writing


Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Thank you for this, Anna. I haven't read Nellie and I should. Her life as you so beautifully summarize it is an inspiration.

Tue Jun 13, 02:06:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Patricia said...

this is lovely Anna, I so want to read this and I hope that you also give us a review on the next memoir. This just flew for me, your words are beautifully put together and brought me to a want to read this book. Wonderful work Anna.xoxo

Tue Jun 13, 02:58:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger MelBell said...

Anna, this is fantastic.

Tue Jun 13, 10:16:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Steve Gajadhar said...

Sigh. Another tough act to follow. I recognize the statue though!

Wed Jun 14, 03:15:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Antonios Maltezos said...

Anna, you have a wonderful sense of time and place and story.

Wed Jun 14, 08:15:00 am GMT-4  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It was writen very well and has inspired me to read both Clearing in the west and The Steam Runs Fast

Sun Mar 25, 04:24:00 pm GMT-4  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


Thu Apr 02, 01:40:00 am GMT-4  

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