Biography 24.1 (2001) 273-287
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"Hidden Country": Discovering Mina Benson Hubbard
It seemed this morning as if something unusual must happen. It was as if we were coming into a hidden country.
--"My Explorations in Unknown Labrador" 822
These words were written in 1906, and they record the thoughts of Mina Benson Hubbard as she went down the George River towards the camps of the "Barren Ground People" during the penultimate stage of her 1905 expedition across Northern Labrador. Mina was referring to the ancestral lands of the Nascaupi Indians, but her words suggest that there is more at stake in her narrative than her visit to the remote, "hidden country" of the Nascaupi in the interior of one of the Canadian North's most unforgiving and inaccessible areas. In this search through the hidden country of Mina's life and life writing, I want to explore her diary from the 1905 expedition, two articles she published in 1906 about that expedition, and her 1908 book A Woman's Way Through Unknown Labrador. By comparing Mina's writing in the diary, articles, and book, I hope to uncover, or at the very least shed some light on, how this late-nineteenth century lady constructed and then reconstructed her identity, how she presented her self (or more precisely her selves) in language, and, finally, how she performed her changing identity within the three discursive contexts available to her between 1905 and 1908. 1 Almost a century later, our task as readers of her work is to try to find Mina in her versions of her story, and to unhide, as it were, the ways in which she negotiated and narrated her identity.
The process Mina went through as she moved from diary to articles to full-length book is one I am calling the dramatization of a multiple auto/ biography within a hybrid narrative of geographical exploration, self-discovery, ethnography, and elegiac celebration (of her husband). I have no doubt at all that she was acutely aware of the power of narrative and the capacity of [End Page 273] language to transform, reveal, and distort. She was able to write differently for different audiences. She could, in short, write well. She also took interesting photographs during her expedition, and used them effectively in A Woman's Way. Although I do not analyze the photography here, I will begin with two visual images that set the stage for Mina's narrative entrance. The frontispiece to A Woman's Way (Figure 1) is a drawing of Mina as a pretty-faced representative of her period, race, and class. In one of the book's photographs, however, we have quite another Mina (Figure 2). This photograph was taken by George Elson, the Scots-Cree guide on her expedition, and it gives us Mina as she appeared on the trail. While it may be tempting to think that, of the two images, the photograph taken on one of the kodaks Mina carried for her field work is the real Mina, the temptation is too easy. The portrait and the photograph (and the other expedition photographs of her in her book) are both Mina Benson Hubbard, and that complexity and multiplicity of identity are central to my investigation. Moreover, the visual images constitute a partial representation of that identity, the greater portion of which emerges from her prose.
Mina Benson was born on a farm near Bewdley on the Rice Lake Plains in southern Ontario in 1870, and she died in 1956 near her home in England. In the 1890s she went to New York to train as a nurse, a career in which she was very successful. She married Leonidas Hubbard, Jr., a handsome young American journalist, in 1901, and they shared an interest in boating, hiking, and outdoors adventures--they spent their honeymoon camping. Mina Benson was an educated, enterprising woman, who grew up in close intimacy with nature, was comfortable in canoes and camping, and expected to take part in physical activities. She was not an average woman of her day, if by average...