- Suitable for the Wilds: Letters from Northern Alberta 1929–31
A popular play at Edmonton's 2007 Fringe Festival was Letters from Battle River: The Adventures of Mary Percy Jackson. In 2004 Australian scholar Maggie MacKellar included an analysis of Jackson's letters in her book Core of My Heart, My Country: Women's Sense of Place and the Land in Australia and Canada, and in 1996 Canada's National Film Board produced an award-winning documentary on her entitled Wanted: Doctor on Horseback. The letters a young doctor wrote to her family in England from the Peace River country in northern Alberta from 1929 to 1931 continue to captivate a wide audience.
Jackson (then Mary Percy) was twenty-five years old and working at Birmingham General Hospital when she answered an advertisement placed by the Fellowship of the Maple Leaf for 'strong energetic medical women' to do 'country work in Western Canada.' The sponsoring organization sought to reinforce the strength of the Church of England and to help 'keep Canada British and Christian' in this outpost of empire by sending out educated British women. Jackson's first choice was India but that option was not available at the time, and she took the Canadian post, planning to stay for one year. She lived alone in a small cabin in the middle of her 250-square-mile district and she travelled by horse, dogsled, car, and steamboat, attending to maternity patients and treating accidents, frostbite, and infectious diseases such as tuberculosis. A strong attraction and attachment to the land and the people soon developed. She wrote in October 1929 that while she was homesick for a few minutes, 'Most times I wonder how on earth I could possibly go back to England to live.' Jackson stayed in northern Alberta for the rest of her life, marrying, in 1931, widower Frank Jackson, an English-born fur trader and farmer with three sons. Jackson continually tried to articulate her growing comfort and fascination with the land in her letters, which challenge tired myths of settler women as alienated and intimidated by 'wilderness.' [End Page 360]
Jackson's letters are engaging and significant. She emerges as a remarkably lively, confident, independent person who was resourceful, resilient, and adaptable. Her writing was not structured and limited by conventions such as the narratives of timid, nervous, and vulnerable single women in the 'safe passage' literature circulated by British female emigration societies. Yet as editor Janice Dickin points out, she wanted to be positive for the sake of her parents' grimmer situations and details were left out. The letters also convey her sense of superiority to 'foreigners,' initially hoping that she did not have to practise among them, but her attitude changes somewhat as she grows to respect the people of this demanding environment. The letters document the extreme poverty and often squalid living conditions of the homesteaders and Metis settlers. Those interested in the history of medicine will find much fascinating detail, such as the burden medical care payments placed on impoverished people. The interviews Dickin did with Jackson in 1994, which appear in an appendix for the first time, provide keen insight into a number of aspects of her lifelong practice, including her most unusual cases.
Some of Jackson's letters were published in 1933, heavily edited by an organizer of the Fellowship of the Maple Leaf. In the early 1990s Dickin learned that Jackson (who died in 2000) was living in northern Alberta and that she still had the original letters. A collaboration between the two resulted in a University of Toronto Press book, out of print until now. Dickin's introduction to the first edition is reproduced here without changes or updates beyond a new preface, and that is one of my few criticisms. A new introduction could have pointed to the wealth of literature on Canadian women's history, gender, and empire, and the history of medicine for example, that has appeared since 1994 that could provide a richer and deeper context. The...