My parents’ copy of Sisters in the Wilderness (the biography of early Canadian authors Susanna Moodie and Catharine Parr Traill) has been on my bookshelf for around 7 years now. It made it onto the back layer of the top shelf at some point, so it didn’t exactly leap out when I’d go looking for something to read, until a recent re-org brought all my unread books to one place, at eye-level. And, to be honest, I was expecting it to be a bit dull – something that I kind of felt like I should read as a good female Canadian English major, but not something that I was really going to be dying to pick up.
But, after my most recent dose of Twilight, I was ready for something a bit weightier, so I decided to give it a go: and it’s been incredibly interesting. The story of these two sisters touches on everything from survival as pioneer homesteaders, to the challenges facing female authors, to old-world prejudices against uncouth colonials, to the influence of the Orange Order, all the way to spiritualism and table-rapping. And it’s reminded me that good biography is history through the lens of a life. And really, that’s what history is. It isn’t dates or artefacts – it’s the lives of people who, like ourselves, have fractured identities, and make choices based on circumstance and necessity, but nevertheless build things up and tear things down, and in doing so lay the foundation for the world as we know it.