28 January 2012
[Originally published in Lake of the Woods Area News Magazine]
The Strickland siblings Samuel and Catherine Parr have left a solid imprint in Canadian Literary history. Their sisters Elizabeth and, more notably, Agnes were well-known contemporaries on the English literary scene. But it is Susanna, married to John Wedderburn Dunbar Moodie, who is most widely recognized by Canadian readers for her book Roughing it in the Bush.
The Moodies’ daughter, Agnes Dunbar, married Charles Thomas Fitzgibbon, and illustrated Catherine Parr Traill’s famous book Canadian Wildflowers (1868). The aunt-niece duo collaborated again to publish Studies of Plant Life in Canada (1885).
Given the family’s propensity for writing, and their predilection for the wild spaces of Canada, is it any surprise that one of them should end up in our neck of the woods just as the railway was being built to open up the West?
The Fitzgibbons’ eldest child, Mary Agnes (born 18 June 1851, she used first one and then the other name during her career) was 25 when she ventured northwest to act as governess to a CPR contractor’s children at the Deception Lake railway camp. Her memoir of this experience, and her first book, A Trip to Manitoba (1880), notes the Oxford Companion to Canadian History and Literature, has been “praised as one of the best travel books relating to Manitoba”. Sadly, Northwestern Ontario readers often overlook this wonderful work because the title is now misleading. We must remember that, at the time Fitzgibbon was here, Manitoba laid claim to an area much further east than its current boundary with Ontario. So, Manitoba Trip actually provides a first-hand account of life at an important transition in our region’s history!
Open it up and relish it; Fitzgibbon’s is a wonderful narrative.
The Canadian (rear) and British First Editions
Her account illustrates the route people took if they were in a hurry to get from Toronto to Deception Lake in those days: all aboard for Sault Ste. Marie by train, then into the US and overland to the Mississippi, up that river by steamboat, over to the Red and up to Winnipeg once more by steamboat. Then travellers climbed into the waggons for a vertebrae-crushing ride over the corduroy Dawson Trail southeast to Northwest Angle, by boat to Clearwater Bay and overland to the camp at Deception Lake. Her observations of the country and the people she met along the way are personal and lively; full of humour and empathy, too.
One of the most delightful surprises for me was her account of visiting the Darlington CPR camp. Years ago I found the old railway camp site and brought it to the attention of the Regional Archaeologist. What a thrill to read a first-hand account of it alive as a community and of the canoe trip Mary made from there to landmarks I grew up haunting! It also was interesting to learn that the place names hadn’t changed over the century in time separating us.
Most of her narrative centres in Deception Lake, though. She captures with clarity and vivacity the lifestyle and the characters with whom she lived and worked or who visited that outpost. We can see them smiling around their pipe-stems and smell the tobacco smoke, too. Readers will sense that the stalwart nature and spirit of adventure Mary admires in them unconsciously reflects qualities ingrained in her own character.
Just a few people are mentioned by name, and I suspect those were changed to protect identities. Even her employers are mentioned only as Mr. and Mrs. C___ in that annoying Victorian habit. The value of this book would be increased exponentially if only she’d given us their names. Ah, well….
Another interesting element in Manitoba Trip’s history is related through one of the stories the book tells. On March 26, 1877 Fitzgibbon’s notes were burned when a fire started by sparks from the chimney engulfed the C___’s Deception Lake home. Without those notes, the author was forced to work from memory. The details she weaves into her account are convincing; her experiences must have been deeply imprinted!
Fitzgibbon remained at Deception Lake for a year and a half before returning to civilization in Southern Ontario. She refined her story for her publishers in London, England. A slightly later Canadian edition appended the subtitle “Roughing it on the Line” just to underscore her literary roots.
She continued in her mother’s footsteps by helping her great aunt Catherine Parr Traill prepare her last two books for publication: Pearls and Pebbles (1894) and Cot and Cradle Stories (1895). Fitzgibbon didn’t stop writing herself, though. In 1894 her biography of her grandfather, A Veteran of 1812; The Life of James FitzGibbon was published. It remains the book for which she is best known, although she wrote or co-wrote numerous other articles and at least four other books over the span of her career.
Throughout her life Mary maintained that women offered an important perspective and possessed unique opportunities through which to preserve history. She strove to engage her sex in what was then a male dominated area of interest. To that end, along with Sarah Anne Curzon, she established the Women’s Canadian Historical Society of Toronto in 1895 and served as its first Secretary. She certainly proved her point through Manitoba Trip. It remains one of the only preserved written accounts of its period in Lake of the Woods’ regional history – a wonderful legacy – and, unarguably, a railway history written from a very different perspective!
Detail view of the pictoral giltwork on the Canadian First Edition's front board.
Mary Agnes Fitzgibbon died on 17 May, 1915, aged 63, of a cerebral haemorrhage. She was just six months into her own presidency over her beloved historical society.
Manitoba Trip is out of print now. The original edition runs up to about $160, but print-on-demand copies are available for much less. Since there are no illustrations in the book (illustrations seldom reproduce well in print-on-demand copies), the latter option makes for a reasonably-priced cottage read!