Monday, April 15, 2013

Book Thoughts - The Journals of Susanna Moodie by Margaret Atwood and Charles Pachter

The Journals of Susanna Moodie by Margaret Atwood and Charles Pachter
published 1980
96 pages

Synopsis from publisher -

As fledgling artists in their respective fields, Margaret Atwood and Charles Pachter were enthusiastic collaborators in a unique art form, the livre d'artiste – the marriage of original graphic work with literary text. Beginning in the mid-sixties, while both were still students, they worked together on five limited-edition handmade books, volumes of Atwood’s poetry with Pachter’s interpretive artwork. The culmination of their collaboration, the work that is considered their masterpiece, is The Journals of Susanna Moodie. In her reading of Susanna Moodie’s chronicles of pioneer life in nineteenth-century Canada, Atwood found the haunting and timeless themes that still obsess us.

The poems of The Journals of Susanna Moodie were first published in 1970 in a standard format. This sequence of poems is regarded as a classic, in addition to being connected with her later novel, Alias Grace. In 1980, Pachter was able to add his own vibrant, evocative images and create the version they had dreamt of: a hand-set, hand-printed illustrated limited edition of 120 numbered copies.

My thoughts -

I wanted to do something for National Poetry Month this year, but I'm such a poetry novice that the idea of commenting on a poetry collection seemed daunting. Then I remembered this on my shelf, a loan from my mom, and thought it would be the perfect thing.

This is truly a work of art - Atwood's poems and Pachter's images are simply stunning together, and create such a unique and unforgettable picture of the life of Susanna Moodie. In the first section of the book, Susanna has arrived in the Canadian frontier, and feels lost, scared, and alone. Particularly evocative for me were "The Wereman", in which she describes her feelings of not knowing who her husband is anymore - not knowing what he will be when he walks in the door; and "Looking in a Mirror", in which she describes the changes she sees in herself after seven years of living in an unfamiliar and difficult place.

The second section of the book is during the time that Susanna and her family has moved to the relative "luxury" of a town, and yet somehow Susanna doesn't seem any happier or less lonely. Nearly all of the poems involve death - of an animal, an interracial couple, Susanna's own children. I found this section more difficult just because I didn't really know what was going on in Susanna's life that would prompt these thoughts. The first section was clear - she just moved from her life in England to the desolate frontier. The second section is more ambiguous, and therefore more open to interpretation. I read the poems over several times, and had different impressions of many of them on consecutive reads.

In the third section, Susanna is an old woman, still not resigned to her life in Canada, but feeling like she should love her new land. Atwood ends the collection with Susanna speaking from beyond the grave, reminding her reader that nothing really changes - even in the middle of their technologically marvelous world, they are still really just in the middle of the forest.

I get the feeling that Atwood didn't really like Moodie - this is a fairly unflattering portrait Atwood paints, making Moodie seem unstable and at times almost crazy. Atwood's interpretation makes me want to get my hands on the original material, to see what it was that might have prompted such an unbalanced portrait of a woman.

The Journals of Susanna Moodie is certainly a fascinating read - the poetry and visuals together create an unforgettable image. I think this is a volume to be read as a piece of art, however, and not for narrative or historical value.

Finished - 4/13/13
Source - loan from my mom
MPAA Rating - PG for some disturbing scenes
My rating - 8/10 for artistic merit


Zibilee said...

This sounds fascinating, and I wonder if Atwood really didn't like Moodie, or if there was something in that original text that sent her the message that she was not right in some way. I need to look into this, and it's source material. Good job Elizabeth!! I'm normally not one to gravitate towards poetry, but this sounds wonderful!

Literary Feline said...

You've really got me curious about this one, Elizabeth. It's not my usual type of read, but it does sound fascinating.