Fierce: Women Who Shaped Canada
Fierce: Women Who Shaped Canada
She had starved in Ireland’s Great Famine before boarding a ship to the New World as a young teenager, leaving her parents and eight older siblings behind; taught herself to read while working as a maid to send money back home; and fled the frontier violence of Saint Paul, Minnesota, with Augustus and their three babies. There was no reason that Catherine could not journey more than 5600 kilometres, braving the wilderness and crossing the Rocky Mountains – even if she would be the only woman among 500 men.
Instead of debating, Catherine smoothed down the front of her full skirts, reminding Augustus of their fourth child now in her belly, and repeated, “But a family stays together. And that’s what it is.”
Lisa Dalrymple’s narrative nonfiction Fierce: Women Who Shaped Canada shines a light on 10 fierce women in Canadian history. While heroes usually act “bravely at a specific moment in time”, Dalrymple characterizes these women as fierce since they were “women who were fired by courage and a rebellious spirit their whole lives.” She chose 10 lesser-known and somewhat obscure Canadian women for the book, including seven as features and three additional “Sister Stories” of women in similar situations for which there was less documentation of their plight. Each chapter in the book ends with the double paged “How do we know what we know?” spread. These pages impart important information about where facts were uncovered, some from archives, oral traditions or family members, as well as what is known about each woman’s story and what is still not known.
Dalrymple begins with the story of Marguerite de la Roque, Canada’s first French settler in 1542 and then moves on to Ttha’naltther’s story from 1713. Ttha’naltther negotiated the peace between the Dene and Nehiyawak peoples at war in Manitoba and ultimately became known as “The Peacemaker”. The “What we don’t know” segment reveals that much of the Peacemaker’s “history has been gleaned from “memories of the Dene elders passed down through oral storytelling.”
Catherine Schubert’s excruciating expedition from Manitoba to British Columbia with her family in 1862 is chronicled. Catherine was the only woman in the group who, while pregnant, was traveling on foot with two small children because she believed “a family stays together.” She went on to become a teacher, open a hotel and donate land for schools.
Alice Freeman’s double life as a teacher and reporter in 1888, at a time when women were not allowed to report, is also fascinating. Under the pen name of Faith Fenton, Alice wrote on social issues, women’s rights and equality, and went on to become Canada’s first female editor.
Cougar Annie also receives mention since she was a tough as nails single mother with an absentee husband who, in the 1920s, cleared her own five acres of land and became an avid hunter, horticulturist and nursery founder in Boat Basin, Vancouver Island.
Dr. Victoria Cheung, the first female intern at Toronto General Hospital, was both fearless and brave when she returned to South China as a medical missionary in the 1920s and then stayed through World War II and the rise of Communist China.
Dalrymple ends with the tale of Mona Parsons, a Wolfville, Nova Scotia native. Dalrymple describes how, during World War II, Mona Parsons and her husband smuggled Allied airmen out of Europe via their home in Amsterdam. Though Parsons ended up a prisoner of war, she ultimately escaped and was able to return to Wolfville where she was lauded for her bravery.
With the exception of Mona Parsons who has received some press coverage over the years, many, if not all of the women in Fierce: Women Who Shaped Canada may be unknown to readers, but all of their stories are incredible. The tales of bravery and courage in the midst of unreal physical and mental challenges will inspire and educate readers of all genders and ages. Dalrymple’s writing is accessible, and each chapter is a short story in itself. Willow Dawson’s simple black and white graphics may appeal to some young readers but neither add nor detract from the work. Educators will benefit from using this resource for read-alouds and for cross-curricular studies in language arts, history and social studies, as well as female studies, equality and Canadian studies. Canadian readers, both young and old, will be astonished that these pioneering women are not more widely known and celebrated.
Cate Carlyle, an author and former elementary teacher, currently resides in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where she is a librarian at Mount Saint Vincent University. Cate is ashamed that she was only aware of one fierce woman in this book.