Until at least the early twentieth century in northwestern Europe and North America (and long after that elsewhere), a large majority of the world’s population was rural, yet these people were mainly visible to historians through the eyes of outsiders (in documents representing the views of government officials, the upper classes, travel writers, critics, and religious institutions, for example). This view contributed to a powerful (and tenacious) stereotype that rural worlds were simple and homogeneous, populated by undifferentiated stock characters from central historical casting (a timeless tradition-bound peasantry, a virtuous yeomanry, hardy pioneers). In an effort to get beyond such understandings, some historians began seeking perspectives from within, rather than outside, rural society, drawing on hitherto little-used sources and reading familiar documents from new angles. The result has been to reveal the variety and complexity of rural worlds and to bring the agency of rural people to the fore.
A leading figure in these new approaches in Canada, Ruth Sandwell is very well qualified to synthesize rural experience in Canada for a series that aims to present “the main themes and interpretations” to non-specialists. This is no small subject, as it involves some 80 per cent of the Canadian population in 1870 and about 50 per cent in 1940. One example of the complexity is that virtually all of Canada’s Indigenous peoples lived in rural contexts at the start of the period, and most still did 70 years later. Another is that rural society encompassed more people than the “farmers, hunters, gardeners, fishers, miners, loggers, and cannery workers” on whom the book concentrates (quotation from the book jacket). Even without considering all the others (for example, blacksmiths, carpenters, tanners, millers, teachers, village bank managers, insurance agents, equipment dealers, railway station agents, feed and seed dealers, clergy, doctors, innkeepers), the diversity of experience of the targeted groups was enormous.
After acknowledging that “rural life in Canada… varied dramatically from one place to another” and noting the “dramatic changes” that marked her period (p. 7), Sandwell makes a reasonable decision to focus primarily on “commonalities and continuities” (p. 9). Thus she stresses the importance and implications of working mainly outdoors, the hard physicality of that work (for men, women, and children), and the household basis of the rural economy (when men worked away seasonally, as many did, family was commonly the reason for doing such work). Secondly, the skills, knowledge, and adaptability of rural people are fundamental to understanding them; calling them “traditional,” for example, misses their readiness to change as circumstances warranted. Thirdly, she emphasizes three economic pillars by which most rural households sustained themselves: self-provisioning (producing for their own consumption), producing for sale in the market, and working away from the farm or household for wages. As long as all three were available, there was a basis for independence, and that in turn helps to explain why many rural families persisted in conditions that seemed, to outsiders at least, to offer a lower standard of living than could be obtained elsewhere. [End Page 217]
Central to the entire work is Sandwell’s deep engagement with environmental history. She organizes her discussion by region, beginning on the Canadian Shield. Subsequent chapters address the St. Lawrence lowlands, the Prairies, the mountains, and finally the coasts (an especially ambitious chapter). Discussions of the physical settings frame an account of the economy that could be built in each, followed by careful accounts of the implications for daily and seasonal living. Although overlapping themes are given their main treatment in the chapter in which each is particularly central, this approach cannot avoid a good deal of repetition. All regions experienced many elements of the main narrative, including technological change, the growth of larger capitalist enterprises, and the booms and busts of the international trade cycle; as well, there were many similarities among regions at the household level of organization and production.
Sandwell’s sympathy for her subjects is evident throughout, as she seeks to understand their decisions and strategies. To tell their story...