Saturday, February 12, 2011

Isabella Bird and America

The Englishwoman in America, Isabella Bird (1856)

I found this a couple of weeks ago at Half-Price Books.  I learned about Isabella Bird last year, from a wonderful book on food history (Pickled, Potter and Canned, by Sue Shepherd). I ordered two of her books on-line, and when they arrived, I added them to the TBR pile.  I did read one, Unbeaten Tracks in Japan - and I found it a bit of a slog.  So I moved the other (Six Months in the Sandwich Islands) further down the pile, next to A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains, which I think I've had unread since at least 1990.

But when I saw The Englishwoman in America was about a trip in the 1850s, I wanted it more for my Civil War collection.  I had found an abridged edition of Anthony Trollope's North America, and I also thought they would be interesting book-end views of America & the Civil War from England.

I didn't realize until I started reading that Bird defined "America" as North America, and that the book is as much about Canada as the US.  In fact, she lands first in Canada, and the book includes a wonderful description of Prince Edward Island (I wondered if she might have met Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, or Mrs. Rachel Lynde).

The book is fascinating reading.  Bird addresses slavery head-on, challenging biblical justifications and the inherent contradiction in the American ideal that "all men are created equal."  She sees clearly that slavery will lead to a great struggle, even open conflict.  Bird can appreciate what America had achieved by 1854, but she sees Canada's future as brighter.  In part, this is because America is weighed down with Romish priests and Irish immigrants - in the last half of the book, there are almost constant references to the baleful influences of these two groups.  Bird actually sees the Know-Nothings as the great hope of America! because the KNs want to exclude immigrants and rein in foreign influences.

Though I found her anti-catholicism grating in the end, I enjoyed this book and Bird's view of the US - and I learned quite a bit about Canada!  So this one is a keeper (and one off the current TBR).

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Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!