An Eloquent Impression of Irish-Canadian life in Early Nineteenth Century
by Mary Tilberg
Publisher: Cormorant Books Inc.
Reviewed by Sharon Greer
Susanna Moodie (1803-1885) was a British-born Canadian author who wrote about her experiences as a settler in Canada.
In Roughing it in the Bush there is reference to a man who escaped slavery in the United States, became a barber in Canada, and ended up marrying a young Irishwoman.
Mary Tilberg's first novel, Oonagh, explores this tale of two people confronting the dangers of a new land in order to build a life together.
In 1833, pursuing a better life in Canada, 18-year-old Oonagh Corcoran sets out on a heartbreaking departure from Ireland, enduring the harsh indignities of an overcrowded, cramped vessel she has taken in order to escape her poverty-stricken country.
After several weeks of this humiliating treatment - rationed drinking water, little food, little water for washing, no privacy, foul odours, a storm - this distressful voyage comes to a welcome end upon arrival in Quebec.
Oonagh and her sister, Mairi, join the family of their older brother, Michael, in a small community in Upper Canada.
But Oonagh's spirited, independent nature soon conflicts with the community, in particular the male element, as she attempts to live within the narrow confines of a very Victorian period.
Oonagh's most captivating and unusual component to her feisty character is her attitude towards religion. Her disbelief in God, combined with her perspectives on so-called Christian values, form an absorbing, refreshing angle to this story.
But the narrative takes a tragic turn when Oonagh falls in love with the charming barber, Chauncey Taylor, a former slave from the Southern states.
Their secret meetings, bittersweet and fraught with both naivety and hope, underscore the poignancy of this trenchant tale.
Tilberg has brought to life a piece of long buried Canadian history. A truly frontier account of hardship, endurance and courage, the author has managed to convey to the reader a myriad array of enduring and eloquent impressions of Irish-Canadian life in the early part of the Nineteenth Century.
Mary Tilberg's poetry and short fiction are regularly published in Canadian literary journals. She lives in Lund, British Columbia.