Glimpses of Long-Past Summers: Four Vintage Canadian Authors to Explore

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By Barb Scharf

High summer in Canada brings long days of blue skies and sunshine, with blazing hot afternoons and late warm evenings and all around the vibrant growth of leaves and flowers, as the countryside makes up for long months hidden under snow by an equally enthusiastic burgeoning of green.

Time now for sitting in the shade with a good book, perhaps one that looks back into the past, with glimpses of gardens that once were. Here are some gems of vintage Canadian literature which combine strong narrative voice with good story, embellished with charming vignettes of description, bringing our long-ago landscape to life in the most enjoyable way.

The Backwoods of Canada by Catharine Parr Traill

(M)y husband brought me a delightful bouquet, which he had selected for me. Among the flowers were fragrant red roses, resembling those we call Scotch burnet-leaved, with smooth shining leaves and few if any thorns; the blue flower called Pulmonaria or Lungwort, which I gathered in the Highlands, a sweet pea, with red blossoms and wreaths of lovely pale green foliage; a white orchis, the smell of which was quite delicious. Besides these were several small white and yellow flowers, with which I was totally unacquainted. The steward furnished me with a china jar and fresh water, so that I shall have the pleasure of a nosegay during the rest of the voyage.

Travelling up the Gulf of St. Lawrence on her voyage to Canada in 1832, Englishwoman Catharine Parr Traill was much impressed by the natural beauty of the country she was so soon to call home. In long letters to her mother in England – collected, edited and published not many years later in book form as The Backwoods of Canada (1836) – Catharine describes the settlements, new settlers, and original inhabitants of this raw new land. She was an accomplished amateur naturalist, and her descriptions of native Canadian plants, birds, insects and animals are appreciative and beautifully rendered. Catharine bemoans the fact that the pioneers are frequently too overwhelmed with the backbreaking labour of establishing their farms in the wilderness to pay much attention to decorating their wilderness cabins with ornamental flowers, but she herself requests from her family and friends back in England seeds of garden flower which she then grows and shares with her new neighbours as the raw land is brought to cultivation, and kitchen gardens are established. The Backwoods of Canada is a keystone book in Canadian literature, documenting the pioneer experience in a highly individualistic voice. Catharine Parr Traill soon came to love her new country despite the challenges it presented; she wrote a number of other equally readable books aimed both at her fellow settlers and readers “back home”. Also worth seeking out is Pearls and Pebbles (1894), a collection of vignettes from Catharine’s many years of appreciative observation of everything around her.

Anne of Green Gables by L M Montgomery

(The garden) was encircled by huge old willows and tall firs, beneath which flourished flowers that loved the shade. Prim, right-angled paths neatly bordered with clamshells, intersected it like moist red ribbons and in the beds between old-fashioned flowers ran riot. There were rosy bleeding-hearts and great splendid crimson peonies; white, fragrant narcissi and thorny, sweet Scotch roses; pink and blue and white columbines and lilac-tinted Bouncing Bets; clumps of southernwood and ribbon grass and mint; purple Adam-and-Eve, daffodils, and masses of sweet clover white with its delicate, fragrant, feathery sprays; scarlet lightning that shot its fiery lances over prim white musk-flowers; a garden it was where sunshine lingered and bees hummed, and winds, beguiled into loitering, purred and rustled.

Lucy Maud Montgomery was lavish with her descriptive passages, and perhaps in none of her books more generously so than her most well-known work, Anne of Green Gables (1908). Those who have never visited the setting of the tale of the famously loquacious red-headed orphan, Prince Edward Island, can easily picture it from the word-portraits lovingly provided by the author. Ditto the smaller details of farmhouse gardens, woodland paths, and prim parlours ornamented with cherished houseplants. L.M. Montgomery’s books are a treasure trove for the horticulturalist interested in heritage flowers, as much as they are amusing fictional tales. In this particular tale, the heroine follows the best tradition of orphan-child-makes-good tales. Elderly siblings Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, sending away for a parentless boy to adopt as a farm help, are stunned to receive instead a girl. Homely and unloved Anne blossoms in the most unexpected way, winning hearts and changing lives all around her. Despite the clichéd nature of the tale, it truly is a diverting story, with enough humour and gently ironic comment included to balance the sugary bits. Anne of Green Gables was followed by a number of sequels, as well as numerous other novels and short stories built on a somewhat similar pattern. All reward the reader with abundant background detail. If you have not yet made Anne’s acquaintance, give her a try. You may find yourself most pleasantly surprised.

The Book of Small by Emily Carr

Mrs. Crane’s garden was not as tidy as Father’s but the flowers had a good time and were not so prim. Mrs. Crane was lenient with her flowers. She let the wild ones scramble up and down each side of the clay path that ran down the bank to the sea. They jumbled themselves up like dancers – roses and honeysuckle climbed everywhere.

Emily Carr is now best known as an iconic Canadian painter – her works instantly recognizable and lauded the world over – but not as familiar perhaps are her equally unconventional and memorable written works. Bedridden after a serious heart attack, and unable to easily paint, Emily Carr turned to writing. She had always kept a diary, and her many years of artistic striving and encounters with a tremendously diverse assortment of people and places seen through the keen eyes of a born artist were well documented. One of my favourite Emily Carr volumes is The Book of Small (1942), an assemblage of thirty-six detailed recollections of her childhood days in Victoria, British Columbia, where Emily and her sisters grew up in the English expatriate colony – parents from the old world, children born in the new – deeply atmospheric with nostalgia for the home country and the rough and tumble reality of a still-new and quickly growing pioneer community. Any of Emily Carr’s books are well worth reading; her writer’s voice was as vibrantly strong as her painter’s talent was unique. Also highly recommended are fellow creative autobiographies Klee Wyck (1941) and The House of All Sorts (1944), and the posthumously published Growing Pains (1946), Emily Carr’s no-holds-barred account of her often-difficult life and long struggle for artistic recognition.

I Married the Klondike by Laura Berton

There were wild flowers everywhere along the roadside – great masses of white bedstraw, blue spikes of wild delphiniums six feet high, masses of yellow arnica, and in the crevices of the old tailing piles, clumps of lupin and yarrow.

In 1907, in the dying days of the long Klondike Gold Rush, 29-year-old teacher Laura Thompson left sedate Toronto and travelled north to rugged and raw Dawson City. There she met, was wooed by and fell in love with a genuine Yukon miner, Frank Berton. She married Frank, and lived the next twenty-five years in the slowly-declining settlement, each spring seeing fewer miners returning from their winters in the south. I Married the Klondike (1955) is Laura Berton’s detailed and lively account of this era in her life. Genteelly raised as a proper Edwardian young lady in one of Canada’s most civilized urban centres, Laura found herself living in a tent, washing her voluminous garments in ice-cold creek water, and learning to bake bread in a tiny 8-inch tin oven. I Married the Klondike is a good-natured and fascinating adventure story, a memoir which reads like a novel. It also documents the other side of the gold rush era, when the pay dirt runs out and the miners move on, leaving behind the incurably optimistic and the elderly, and those whose commitment to the country outweighed the economic challenges of trying to make a living once most of the other people had moved on. Laura and Frank made a go of things, raising a family (their son Pierre was the well-known CBC radio broadcaster and prolific-writer-of-all-things-Canadian-history), travelling the countryside, and growing wonderful gardens in the long summer days of the land of the midnight sun.

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Barb Scharf cultivates her own old-fashioned flower garden in a peaceful rural valley in the middle of British Columbia, where she reads as much as she can get away with, and blogs about her world at Leaves and Pages.