by Angela E. Davis
University of Manitoba
Mary Hallett and Marilyn Davis, Firing the Heather: The Life and Times of Nellie McClung. Saskatoon: Fifth House Ltd., 1993, 368 pp., illus., ISBN 1-895618-43-6, $14.95 paper.
There have been numerous accounts of the life of Nellie McClung. Most historical essays or introductions to McClung’s own work have offered analytical studies of her approach to political, social and family life. The work of Veronica Strong-Boag, for example, in the 1972 introduction to a new publication of McClung’s In Times Like These (originally published in the United States in 1915) covers how McClung’s belief in feminine equality led to a number of ideas in regards to the means by which women could adjust their lives. To put the whole of McClung’s life into an overall analysis of her political beliefs and contributions does not as yet demonstrate a complete account of how and why she became such a relevant woman in the history of changes in Canadian women’s lives.
Nellie McClung was a school teacher, a wife and mother, a writer and a politician. She was born in Ontario in 1873, moved west with her family in 1880 and went eventually to the Winnipeg Normal School to train as a standard children’s school teacher. In 1890, at the age of seventeen, she started her first teaching position. During the next five years she taught continuously, until in 1896 she married Wesley McClung, a town druggist. They lived in Manitou until 1911. Following the birth of four children, the family moved to Winnipeg where the fifth child was born and her husband re-established his working career. This moving to a larger city might sound like the record of life for a typical woman and her family for the time. On the other hand, it was not like that for the McClungs.
It might be thought that an account of how Nellie McClung, her husband and family became important elements in the history of Canadian political life would create anew understanding of the changes affecting women during the time. Firing the Heather: The Life and Times of Nellie McClung does not, however, completely do this. Utilizing primarily McClung’s two autobiographies (Clearing in the West, 1935, and The Stream Runs Fast, 1945), Firing the Heather creates the biography of McClung’s political experience as the major aspect of the record. After all, the examples of what Nellie McClung achieved for women in terms of the legislative vote, of becoming a member of the Alberta Legislature and of attending the League of Nations in Geneva in 1938, demonstrate the wide aspects of her political involvement.
Such elements as records on her family, writing books for publication and moving to new dwelling places are, on the other hand, introduced and analysed less frequently. The manner in which they are discussed in terms of adjusting to family life, politics and writing does not join them together. At times therefore, it is extremely difficult to understand how a woman such as McClung could achieve all the variable aspects of her life that she did. Her book writing allowed her sufficient funding to cover the cost of house assistance (e.g. a housekeeper) when she was on such extreme political travelling from Manitoba and Alberta. The account of how her husband and family reacted to her trips away to political meetings is not completely clear. In the same way, how she managed to write books between political meetings is also unclear in terms of time.
For many of the readers of this historical biography (especially for professional historians) it might be more advantageous if Chapter Ten, the “Antiromantic Fiction of a Feminist,” was perhaps removed from the account of McClung’s political life. To record her literary experience is really worthy of its own interpretation. Also, it would be advantageous if there was not quite so much reproduction, in quotation marks, of McClung’s own records in her books.
Yet, it is true that the period of time covered in Firing the Heather is fascinating. The book can be appreciated by readers for presenting the variety of experiences Nellie McClung covered in her life time, and for demonstrating how she was a major figure in providing women with political achievement.
Page revised: 11 April 2010