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British Children Have More Fun
by Georges T. Dodds

With the critical acclaim for Susanna Clarke's tale of 19th century magicians in London (Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell: A Novel), the popularity of Worst Witch, a TV series set in a British private girl's school for witches, and the Harry Potter series, it is clear that British wizards and magicians are seeing a wave of popularity not experienced since the days of John Dee, and that this magic is particularly popular when placed in the hands of pre-teen wielders. However, it is a different sort of magic -- that of the outdoors, of Nature, of imagination, of play and of learning and social dynamics it brings to children -- that interests Georges.

[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other British Children Have More Fun columns.

Canadian Crusoes: A Tale of the Rice Lake Plains
Catherine Parr Traill
(London, 1852)
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Catherine Parr Traill
(1802-1899)

Catherine Parr-Traill Catherine Parr-Traill (née Strickland) was born in 1802 in Bungay, Suffolk, England, the fifth of six sisters. Home-schooled, they all had free run of the extensive family library. Before emigrating to Canada in 1832, Catherine published The Young Emigrants, or Pictures of Life in Canada (1826), based on letters received from friends and family in Canada. In 1832, she met Thomas Traill and they were married; they immediately set off for Canada. With her husband's farm failing, his deepening depression, she supported the family through her writing. The Backwoods of Canada was published 1836 and was a commercial success. She continued writing children's books, short stories, serials and essays that were published in women's magazines and newspapers until her death in 1899. She also wrote about the unique flora and fauna around her in Canadian Wild Flowers (1868) and Studies of Plant Life in Canada (1885). The children's adventure novel Canadian Crusoes; A Tale of the Rice Lake Plains was published in London in 1852.

Biography: 1, 2
E-TEXT: 1 (text only), image copy of 1st edition

Canadian Crusoes: A Tale of the Rice Lake Plains Working on a publishing project which includes a number of Robinson Crusoe-like tales, but involving feral children rather than adults, I came to read Catherine Parr Traill's Canadian Crusoes: A Tale of the Rice Lake Plains (London, 1852). Before you tell me that Traill was a Canadian, not a British authoress, I'll remind you that, in 1852, Canadian Confederation was 15 years away -- Canada was still a colony, and Traill had only come to Canada some 20 years before. Based on actual accounts of children who were lost in the Canadian woods (see Traill's Appendix A), Traill wove together a children's novel about two young teenage boys [one of English parentage (Hector) and one of French (Louis)] and a teenage girl, Catherine, who get lost in the Rice Lake region of Upper Canada (near present-day Peterborough, ON, Canada) while picking wild fruit. When they come to realize that they are well and truly lost, they don't panic, but use their wood lore and experience to build a shelter, kill or trap game, store food, and avoid marauding Native Americans, while over-wintering in the wilderness. The children have different characters and qualities, one a stealthier hunter, the other a better boatsman... and by cooperating within the confines of their mutual limitations, they survive.

While Catherine certainly has a strong character, and is portrayed as far more competent in the wilderness that the average girl of her age would be today (i.e. The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon by Stephen King), she is somewhat fearful and Canadian Crusoes: A Tale of the Rice Lake Plains prone to panic when confronted with some of the less docile fauna, competent but not plucky, and exhibiting many of the stereotypical roles of Victorian women (mother figure, cook, seamstress, interior decorator) -- though this was the 1850s after all. By contrast, Indiana, a native girl of their age, tortured (one assumes raped, though this isn't explicitly stated) and left for dead by the tribe that wiped out her family, is rescued and nursed back to health by the children. Ultimately she becomes the strongest and most honourable of the children (and the most interesting character), offering up her life to her enemies in exchange for Catherine's. Yes, I've heard of the noble savage, and certainly Indiana is not depicted as a European woman, but neither is she denigrated as a savage. What's actually quite remarkable, I found, in Canadian Crusoes is the relative harmony and mutual respect which exists between the French and English, and towards the natives. Of course Indiana must be baptised before she can marry Hector, but neither he nor his family appear to have any other objections.

Certainly, as with most children's books of the era, there's some moralizing that goes on, long descriptions of the local flora (Traill did after all write some of the earliest English books on Canadian wildflowers), and perhaps most annoying, didactic shifts forward to inform the reader that such and such forest location is now the site of John MacNab's lower pasture, or is now traversed by a town's main street. Still, Canadian Crusoes is a good read which presents a realistic and detailed view of what it would have taken to survive in the forests of Upper Canada in the mid-19th century.

Copyright © 2005 Georges T. Dodds

Georges Dodds is a research scientist in vegetable crop physiology, who for close to 25 years has read and collected close to 2000 titles of predominantly pre-1950 science-fiction and fantasy, both in English and French. He writes columns on early imaginative literature for WARP, the newsletter/fanzine of the Montreal Science Fiction and Fantasy Association and maintains a site reflecting his tastes in imaginative literature.


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