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Seeking Our Eden: The Dreams and Migrations of Sarah Jameson Craig

By Joanne Findon

Review By Lindsey McMaster

March 20, 2016

BC Studies no. 192 Winter 2016-2017  | p. 159-160

Sarah Jameson Craig was born in 1840 in St Andrews, New Brunswick, a descendant of United Empire Loyalists, and she grew up in a log cabin in the isolated backwoods with no local post office and no school. Learning to read from her parents, Sarah’s love of learning proved so strong that she says, “I made the most of every moment available for such employment, so it happened that I never attended, or saw the inside of, a day school until I was called to teach a little school myself” (19). Thus, at sixteen, she gathered a few local children into her home’s front room, “hoping it would provide a stepping stone to a larger teachership” (20). The school only lasted three months, the poverty and scepticism of the community undermining Sarah’s hopes. It was one setback among many to come in Sarah’s life history, as carefully unfolded in this volume by Joanne Findon, Sarah’s great-granddaughter, whose primary sources are the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century diaries and memoir her ancestor left to the family.

Efforts to uncover the untold stories of women’s lives in Canadian history have come to occupy a vital field of Canadian studies, and Findon’s account of Sarah Jameson Craig’s life represents a valuable contribution to this scholarship. Often, the life writing we have from women of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in Canada comes from women whose class position afforded them a certain amount of time and leisure to spend on the writing process. This is not Sarah’s case. She came from an impoverished rural community and she struggled with extreme poverty for most of her life. Her literary sophistication and her highly developed reformist philosophies were both cultivated independently, outside of any formal education. Thus, as Findon points out, Sarah “is unusual among women of her class and time: poor, yet highly literate and well-read in the current medical theories of her day, and aware of currents of thought circulating far beyond the boundaries of home” (13).

Sarah was deeply influenced by the reform movements of her time, particularly dress reform and hydrotherapy. As the only person in her small community to adopt the proto-feminist “reform dress” of shortened skirts above wide-leg pants, Sarah was regarded as eccentric in the extreme. Hydrotherapy or the “water cure,” meanwhile, was a system of alternative medicine that Sarah studied in great depth and expertly applied to nurse family members through illness. Scholars of the reform period will appreciate Findon’s detailed explanation of these movements and Sarah’s first-person accounts of advancing her progressive views against a largely indifferent and sometimes hostile community.

Findon’s biographical narrative, which follows her ancestor chronologically through her lifetime, propels Sarah from rural New Brunswick to New Jersey, Ontario, Saskatchewan (then the Assiniboia District of the North-West Territories), and finally to British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, where she and her children formed a cluster of three family farms — the longed-for “Eden” of the book’s title. Sarah’s family arrived just as these lands were opening up to orchard cultivation, and her writings of this time document the First World War as well as women’s first opportunity to vote in British Columbia in 1917.

Sarah Jameson Craig is deftly brought to life through Findon’s scholarship, which fluently balances well-researched explanation with liberal quotation from Sarah’s lively, expressive prose. As Findon rightly attests, “Her desires, forcefully articulated on paper, surely reflect in some measure the desires of every woman in Canada during this time, and for this reason she deserves to be heard” (14).

Seeking Our Eden: The Dreams and Migrations of Sarah Jameson Craig
Joanne Findon
Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015. 228 pp. $34.95 cloth