The life of 19th century Canadian immigrants was rough, and quite often deadly. Their eventual triumph over natural and human-made adversity, and the foundation they laid for our community, is downright incredible. That’s my takeaway from Olive Caldwell Lee’s 2015 book, “Living Out The Dream” .
The book is historical fiction, but has a solid footing in fact. Lee weaves together her own family’s oral history with letters, official documents and heaps of genealogical research to tell the stories of George Argue and Forest Caldwell as they escaped brutal conditions in Ireland for the promise of a better life in Canada in the early 19th century.
The families left Ireland (Argue and his wife Mary left in 1821; Caldwell and his wife Mary left two years later), settling in Goulbourn Township, near what’s now Stittsville. The book follows them and their friends as they establish their families in Goulbourn, Huntley and Bytown (Ottawa).
Lee, the author, was born in Fallowfield; her mother Emma was an Argue, and her father Wesley was a Caldwell. She now lives in British Columbia.
“I had an aunt with a great knack for storytelling,” Lee told me on the phone a few weeks back . “When she started telling me things I decided I wasn’t going to let it go. She would tell stories and I would go home write it all down on my computer.
Lee filled in her aunt’s stories with some archival research, and published a book privately for her family in 2004. Her relatives encouraged her to publish the work, so she revised and expanded it and released it as a novel in 2015. “I did take liberties, I consider it to be a non-fiction book, but I made it up on the basis of what was going on at the time (in the 19th century).”
“I was so impressed with what these people had to go through. They all had to go through it, I didn’t want to glorify one particular family. It was just easier for me to do it with my family because I had stories,” she says.
“My grandmother was born in 1864 and she was instrumental in bringing me up. I have within me a flavour of that time. My aunt was her daughter and lived with her all her life. Somebody from the family sure must have been loquacious about stories,” says Lee. “Society was about church and family. Every time they got together there would be someone telling stories.”
The story of the Argue’s and Caldwell’s is not the green fields and nostalgia of pioneer life we often see in the movies. A few chapters into the book I started making a list of all the different things that could kill a 19th century immigrant to Canada: starvation, drowning (on the boat over), disease, hypothermia, wolves, bears, mosquitos (cholera), falling trees, fire, childbirth. Just to name a few.
And then there was depression. Here’s one of Lee’s impactful depictions of the landscape the settlers arrived to:
“Few of them realized how much they had all suffered some degree of depression. The gloom of the forest and dark canopy of the huge trees cut off whatever light was available. The ugly view of nothing but stumps between the cabin and the wall of trees was all that many felt they would ever see in this land. But most of all there was a sense of hopelessness at the immensity of the task before them without even the prospect of a good meal or the company of friends to look forward to. All these things that taken a huge toll on their spirits.”
“There was no road, there was a little leading from the cabin, those trees were so old, you just got a little bit of light, I could see that was a very valid point. The women (and children) were left alone for long periods of time while men would go to the bush until the springtime,” she says.
The book paints an honest picture of what life would have been like for the newcomers to Canada, but it’s more inspiring than bleak. The Argue’s and Caldwell’s thrived despite the adversity. Lee describes the bonds between family and friends, and how they worked together to clear trees for their farms, support each other’s families, establish churches and schools, and start building the society and communities that we know today.
I asked Lee what she thought her ancestors would think of Goulbourn as it looks today: no longer a farming community but a growing suburb over over 30,000 people.
“If you were to put them (the early settlers) into the community of 1900, they would think ‘we’ve done well”. After 2000 – the digital world hit. They wouldn’t be able to process it. You can look at an old building or road or churches and understand that, but you can’t make that much of a jump and make sense of it.
“They could have made sense up to about World War II. Before that there wasn’t a huge change. Protestants and Catholics lived separate lives, and it wasn’t until WWII that it started to break down more. That’s the life that my aunt grew up in, and her ancestors.”
The journey of the pioneers is particularly poignant in the context of 21st century refugees . They have a lot in common: fleeing religious persecution and horrid living conditions, risking starvation and drowning to travel across water, and arriving in an uncertain and sometimes unwelcoming land.
Living Out The Dream by Olive Caldwell Lee is available at the Stittsville Branch of the Ottawa Public Library.