Away with words. Here, we look at the literary luminaries who called Kawarthas cottage country in Ontario home.
This was thick bush," Derry Wilford, Lakefield Historical Society president, says with a shake of his head as he points toward the location of pioneer author Susanna Moodie's long-gone cabin, now vacant land on Stenner Road outside Lakefield, Ont. I'm here–two hours northeast of Toronto, in the heart of Kawarthas cottage country, surrounded by rivers and lakes on the edge of the Canadian Shield–looking to be swept away by words, in what some call the cradle of Canadian literature.
Just ask Nigel Beale, the Literary Tourist.com editor. "Four of Canada's most important authors lived and worked here, and one of Canada's defining stories is set here [Roughing It in the Bush]," says Beale, who is also the author of an audit of the Kawarthas' "extensive tangible and intangible literary assets."
He speaks of luminaries Robertson Davies, who called nearby Peterborough home, and, in Lakefield, Margaret Laurence and 19th-century sisters Moodie and Catharine Parr Traill. These intrepid sisters left a literary family in England ("They were like the Brontes," I overheard one local say) to follow brother Sam Strickland to Canada. Come evening, I dive deeper into their story, nabbing a lobby copy of Charlotte Gray's Sisters in the Wilderness from Lakefield's The Village Inn.
Though educated, they were woefully unprepared for life here. Their candid accounts of pioneer living–Moodie wrote more critically of her experiences; Traill delighted in the diversity of the backwoods–are important. "It resonates with everyone, the things they went through, the loneliness, the hardships, the exhilarations," says Beale. "Every Canadian, their grandparents, someone in their family, went through this at some point."
In Lakefield, I follow their footsteps, falling under the easy spell of a village where diner waitresses call you "hon" and steam rises off your coffee, where personalized service and high-end wares fill clothing and curio shops. I trace long ago footfalls on quiet streets to the old stone Christ Church, now a community museum. Built in 1853-54 on the bank of the Otonobee River, displays include Traill's desk and notes found in a scrapbook in an unfrequented church corner. The adjacent cemetery reveals early settler names, including the Stricklands.
Up the street, I read the plaque outside Laurence's house, now a private residence at 8 Regent St. She lived in the yellow-brick house from 1975 to 1987, penning her last memories in an upstairs room. The Laurence years are splendidly celebrated each July during the Lakefield Literary Festival, begun in her honour in 1995 and now a full-scale celebration of the written word. From Laurence's home, it's five minutes to 16 Smith St. where Traill lived from 1860 to her 1899 death. Her stone grave is north of town, in Hillside Cemetery.
Next: Visiting the Trent Valley Archives
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