Roberts, Heart of the Ancient Wood

They don't write them like this anymore. Or maybe they do, but they don't publish them.

HPC project
Probably for the best, that, but it's so wildly through the looking glass to read early 20th-century novels that I'm persistently tempted to teach them anyway. Latest candidate: Charles G.D. Roberts' The Heart of the Ancient Wood, which might count as early fantasy masquerading as non-credible realist fiction. (Ebook available at

Now, Roberts was a pretty terrific poet, but he's name-checked more often than read, and his fiction doesn't get talked about very much even by the critics going to the trouble of name-checking his poetry. Sure, he wrote a vast number of books, so many that they can't possibly all be worth reading, and some of them are almost unrecoverably dated, but the 1900 Heart of the Ancient Wood is just bizarre enough that it shouldn't be overlooked. I mean, a colonialist frontier novel about the intersection between proto-feminism and vegetarianism that draws on Shakespeare's The Tempest and Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter? Such stuff as dreams are made on, amirite?

(And before you ask -- yes, indeed I do realize that for most people, this would count as six distinct reasons NOT to read the book. I'm guessing that those people won't find themselves on this blog very often anyway.)

If you happen to pick up the New Canadian Library edition, though, let me just say that you should under no circumstances read the introduction before reading the novel. Even the very first paragraph gives away crucial plot points, and by its end, the introduction -- by the henceforth accursed Joseph Gold -- reveals every single narrative twist. These are hanging offences, in my book library, more so because this book is so weird that if you let Joseph Gold control your reading experience, you're not going to recognize the scope of the weirdness.

So … is this all a build-up for a book review that tells you nothing whatever about the book being reviewed?


The novel's spark is a mother's decision to abandon a frontier settlement and raise her daughter entirely alone, far from civilization but intimate with the wild. The novel itself is about the growth of a young girl into feral animality as well as womanhood, and about the Schrodingerian resolution of competing possibilities. Essentialism plus colonialism plus posthumanism, Romantic nature-loving plus anti-hunting diatribes plus Alone in the Wilderness: I refuse to give any more away than that.

Should I teach it in September, I wonder?


theresa said…
(Somehow the comment I just wrote disappeared. If it appears, delete this one!) I want to read this book! And that you say it wouldn't be published now makes it more attractive, in a way! One of my favourite B.C. "novels" (friemds from Bill New to Charles Lillard disagree on whether it is a novel or non-fiction) is Frederick Niven's Wild Honey. And of course it is a book of its time. Unreconstructed. Unabashedly euro-centric (but hard to expect it to be otherwise, given the author, the times...). Still, it has the tang of sage and pine resin on every page and the beauty of careful accurate observation as the protagonist (author?) walks from Savona down the Thompson Canyon.
sandra said…
why do you write "early fantasy masquerading as non-credible realist fiction." To me this book is entirely credible, and taught me what to look for in bears and birch trees, among other things. It remains one of my by-far-favorite Canlit classics, and I can never figure out why people prefer Engel's bear story to this one.
richard said…
Hi Sandra -- To be clear, I much prefer Roberts' bear story to Engel's. There's a tremendous amount of natural-history detail in Heart of the Ancient Woods, and the characters are terrific as well (though "of their time," as Theresa might say in the previous comment here). But there's a bear living part-time in someone's house. Aspects of this otherwise apparently high-realist novel don't fit with the rest of what's going on here, and the long-ago "nature fakers" argument (click here to read more) is about precisely this kind of incomplete accuracy.

And also, when I use the term "fantasy," I'm thinking about the fictional mode we call fantasy, which may have wood spirits and talking animals. That's not a pejorative term for me.

Thanks for reading,
sandra said…
thumbs up. I'm glad I don't teach literature, having to take a balanced and realistic view of things to keep students grounded. Where do you teach?
richard said…
I don't think I've ever said it on this blog, though there are lots of clues for people who know the place: but the University of Victoria.

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