Welcome to Fredericton, New Brunswick! Fredericton signals our entrance into Atlantic Canada and the last leg of our trans-Canada literary fare tour.
In this sampling, we witness acts of both desperation and fortitude in the human struggle against hunger. Spanning diverse circumstances and time periods, these stories are framed by the multifaceted experiences of outsiders: unfamiliar with the land and without access to provisions, marginalized by poverty and race, and longing for social acceptance and a fair chance at Canada’s opportunities.
An American Loyalist who left the United States in 1783, Mary Barbara Fisher (1749-1841) settled with her family and other Loyalists at Ste. Anne’s Point, which would eventually become Fredericton. Fisher’s memories of the difficult early years at Ste. Anne’s Point were documented in “The Grandmother’s Tale” in her son Peter Fisher’s The First History of New Brunswick (1825). In this excerpt entitled “The Gloomy Prospect,” Mary Barbara Fisher recalls how in the first year of their settlement, many of the Loyalist settlers began “to live after the Indian fashion” and hunted for food (36). When provisions were scarce and deliveries of supplies unreliable, the settlers’ lack of knowledge of the land made their situation worse: “In the spring we made maple sugar. We ate fiddleheads, grapes and even the leaves of trees to allay the pangs of hunger. On one occasion some poisonous weeds were eaten along with the fiddleheads; one or two died, and Dr. Earle had all he could do to save my life” (36).
Eventually, the Loyalists began to familiarize themselves with nearby plants and located ingenious sources of food. Fisher recounts the discovery of a patch of white beans with black cross-like markings that “had probably been originally planted by the French, but were now growing wild” (37). They called the beans “Royal Provincials’ bread” and later, “[t]he staff of life and hope of the starving” (37). Fisher cultivated this staple, and her family preserved the seeds year after year. When tea was scarce, Fisher made Labrador tea or “steeped spruce or hemlock bark for drinking” (37). Potatoes were planted in large quantities by hand and pigeons were hunted for their meat. Surprisingly, the pigeons also supplied what was necessary for a garden: “We found in their crops some small round beans, which we planted; they grew very well and made excellent green beans, which we ate during the summer” (37-38).
These Loyalist settlers’ resourcefulness ensured their survival, especially since sources of supplies were not readily accessible in the winter. Purchased provisions were hauled by hand “fifty or a hundred miles over the ice or through the woods,” and Fisher recalls one journey that Dr. Earle made by snowshoe for flour and biscuits: “It was a hard and dangerous journey, and they were gone a long time” (38).
Moving forward to the mid-twentieth century, George Elliott Clarke’s novel George and Ru is based on the true story of George and Rufus Hamilton, two black Canadian brothers who murdered a taxicab driver in Barker’s Point, New Brunswick (the poor north end of Fredericton) in 1949. Part of what drives them to crime is hunger. Before we know it is they who bludgeoned the cab driver with a hammer, we overhear the thoughts of the one wielding a hammer: “The hunger in his gut was, he figured, much worse than any maybe pain he did” (xi). During his youth in Nova Scotia, George grew up in poverty and was continually hungry: “Game’d keep well from October to April. George’d let deer meat break down to get the rigor mortis out, to get it so tender he could cut it with a simple knife. Such know-how could turn moose and deer into snowshoes and moccasins; hunger could turn them into mincemeat. George sawed ice that was thick, cutting out squares like cakes already frosted. He could get hungry, starving, dreaming the ice was cake. Georgie’s first love was food. Life was a meal. He’d buy and eat a whole bowl of berries and never share. Nice bread had to be as intoxicating as molasses-distilled home brew” (44).
Rabindranath Maharaj’s short story “Bitches on All Sides” traces the experience of Ramjohn, a Muslim immigrant from the West Indies who struggles to feel at home in Canadian society. Living in Fredericton, Ramjohn cannot find employment, deals with “parasite” landlords, and finds it difficult to put food on the table (8). Sitting in the shopping mall, Ramjohn observes shoppers with their “substantial bags in their pink, plump hands” and realizes that his impoverished life in Canada is far from what he had previously imagined: a cottage in the woods where in the evenings he could “sally down to the little brook and scoop out slick salmon” (7, 9). Frustrated by his sense of alienation, Ramjohn eventually purchases a large portion of pork from the Victory Meat Market and tries to ingest it. He believes that by assimilating this stereotypical Canadian meat, he himself, will become part of his surroundings, validating his feelings of alienation and hostility and, at the same time, appeasing his hunger for belonging:
“‘Porkman. They could call me that. Strange visitor from another planet. Porkton.’… But the meat clung to him, refusing to be abstracted, refusing to divest itself of its power…. The meat was moving indiscriminately, venturing into unacceptable areas, attaching itself to his heart, spreading through his lungs, pushing against his kidneys, vaulting athletically between his veins, sprinting to his brain. He felt dizzy” (21).
Porkton Plate. Plate design by Noël Hoffman for the “CanLit Dinner Party” Exhibition, Kwantlen Polytechnic University, Nov. 24-25, 2014. “To capture Ramjohn’s feelings of alienation, I created a spaceship. I covered my placemat in newspaper because during Ramjohn’s fight with his roommate when he starts to consume the pork, he tells her to call the presses. The placemat illustrates Ramjohn’s sarcastic and abusive nature, which are symptoms of his overwhelming frustration towards Canadian society.” (Hoffman, Noël. “Hard to Swallow: Dietary Preference as a Means of Cultural Isolation in Rabindranath Maharaj’s “Bitches on All Sides.” English 4401. 2014. TS)
We would love to hear more about Fredericton’s literary fare. Please post below or tweet us @canlitfare.
Now, we’re heading to the island: Charlottetown, P.E.I.
Fredericton Sampling Menu
Clarke, George Elliott. George and Rue: A Novel. Toronto: HarperCollins, 2005. Print.
Fisher, Mary Barbara. “The Gloomy Prospect.” Early Voices: Portraits of Canada by Women Writers, 1639-1914. Ed. Mary Alice, et al. Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2010. 33-38. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 24 April 2015.
Maharaj, Rabindranath. “Bitches on All Sides.” 1995. Victory Meat: New Fiction from Atlantic Canada. Ed. Lynn Coady. Toronto: Anchor Canada, 2003. 7-23. Print.
Written By: Shelley Boyd and Nathalie Cooke