CULTIVATING CREATIVITY: Belleville, The Susanna Moodie Town

By Peter Paylor/Quinte Arts Council

Montreal-based novelist and playwright Marianne Ackerman is no stranger to the Bay of Quinte Region. Born and raised on a farm in Prince Edward County and educated at Nicholson Catholic College in Belleville, Ackerman and her partner Gwyn Campbell have spent the past seven summers rebuilding an old stone house in the County.

Her creative project when she’s here goes back to when she studied Susanna Moodie’s Roughing it in the Bush back in high school and learned that Moodie’s primary stone house was on Bridge Street in Belleville. Ackerman re-reads the book every time she comes back.

“It’s such a rich book. It’s way ahead of its time,” says Ackerman. “Now that we are living in very, I would say, a neo-colonial age of Canadian culture, [when] the nationalist fervor of Canadian culture is now superseded by big box literature, I think the real heart of Canadian culture is once again back in the wilderness and back in small towns where creativity can blossom because people want to work. So, Moodie is, to me, very, very relevant.”

Ackerman has spent the past four summers writing a stage adaptation of Moodie’s book, workshopping the script with local actors. She’s been more than impressed by the talent we have here in the Quinte region. “Susanna Moodie has become my kind of mission and alter-ego,” says Ackerman. “I identify very much with her. I’m very, very heartened that through this terrible winter, when we’re all tenderized by suffering, that there’s some future for this play because I think it will speak to people who have been through something. I think that Belleville could do so much with Susanna Moodie. This could be the Susanna Moodie town. Take it on. It’s your story.”

Ackerman speaks about a “wonderful, tragic passage” in Roughing it in the Bush that expresses Moodie’s thoughts on Indigenous people: “Moodie says that sadly, looking at their plight and the way they were being treated by the government, one can only predict that they will be lost, they will disappear, that is the policy that she sees in action at the time. Yes, now we know that to be true, that was where that policy was going.”

She also credits Moodie for her tenacity and clear-sightedness to report what she saw: “It’s a testament. We have so little of that kind of information about what it was like on every level back then.”

Ackerman also sees parallels with what we’re going through now with COVID-19. “Susanna Moodie’s story is a story of incredible hardship. Collective hardship. Personal hardship. What we’ve been through, what we’re still going through is hardship. To be locked away from friends…that’s Moodie’s story. She was alone in the bush and she fought with people and people moved away and she felt even worse. Isolation is her theme.”

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2021 Issue of Umbrella magazine, out now.