Memoir recalls a forgotten side of Algonquin

Review by Sue Lalonde in The Muskokan

As a child, Rebecca Nolan Atkins lived in a railway boxcar. She didn’t go to school until she was nine years old. She was not an orphan or a vagabond, but rather she was a pioneer, a girl who lived in the wilderness of Algonquin Park in the early 1900s. The story of her childhood and her time in history is captured in My Childhood in the Bush, Growing up in Brent on the CNR in Algonquin Provincial Park (1913-1919).

The book is a historical memoir written for children and is narrated by Atkins, as she recalls the settling of her family in the small community of Brent, on the northern edge of Algonquin Park. Brent was the Canadian National Railway’s divisional point between Pembroke and North Bay, where fresh coal was loaded, engines repaired and crews changed. When Rebecca’s father, a locomotive engineer and machinist, was stationed there, his wife and daughter came with him. At first they were the only females living year-round in the isolated community, but gradually the village grew.

Atkins’ narration is simple, almost childlike as she details significant events of her youth, such as living in boxcar homes, meeting new friends and discovering her natural surroundings. These recollections are neatly set against the larger framework of the settling of a community and the continued development of the Canadian National Railway. As the book states in its introduction: “Her individual story reflects Canada’s struggle for its own identity in the early 1900s.” Through her storytelling we can glimpse the historical events and people that shaped this small community.

The book was produced by Paul and Doug Mackey, historians who focus on the social and oral history of central and northern Ontario. They compiled the book from Atkins’ written memories and from interviews conducted before her death in March 2000, at the age of 90.

There’s no attempt to disguise the fact that this is an oral history. As Atkins recalls her childhood, her voice speaks from both the present and the past. Her simple and often funny details are engaging and will appeal to younger readers. Her story also speaks to older audiences, and there is a sense that she is recalling details in the present. At times, it feels as though you are sitting with Rebecca and going through her photographs as she tells her story. The photographs also echo the historical significance of the early 1900s. Most of them came from her mother’s collection, but they’re more than just family photos: they reveal a significant era of growth and change in Canada’s landscape.

My Childhood in the Bush captures moments in history that have been all but swallowed by the landscape of Algonquin. Just as Atkins had few keepsakes of her mother’s, we too have few reminders of the people who carved out their lives in the wilderness of Brent in the early 1900s. This story is one such keepsake, an achievement of sharing a heritage and history that will not be soon forgotten. 

From "Kidd's Corner" 

by Eleanor Kidd in the Huntsville Weekender (Huntsville Forester)

‘My Childhood in the Bush’, developed by Paul and Doug Mackey from personal interviews with Rebecca Atkins along with her memoirs, details her childhood from 1913-1919 in Algonquin Park.  The excellent photographs and illustrations as well as the clarity of the writing add significantly to the book’s appeal not only for children but also for adults.  

This journal would be a worthwhile addition to a school library and an important inclusion in a co-ordinated English/history program for grades six and seven.  The Mackeys’ concern for preserving the park’s history is evident in their superb book, ‘The Fossmill Story’, which recently received the Ontario Historical Society’s award for the best Ontario Regional History.

We are introduced to Rebecca in Brent as she and her parents prepare to live in a renovated boxcar.  Her father, who was a machinist and locomotive engineer, brought his family to this remote area where they contended with the lack of schools, roads and professional medical care as well as enduring long treks to North Bay for supplies.

Then, the terrible flu epidemic of 1918, 1919 struck affecting most families.  Yet, Rebecca seemed to thrive in this wilderness setting stating, “We lived with real nature an experience that most other people missed.”  She died in her 90th year in March, 2000 before this book was published. Without devoted historians like the Mackeys, think of the fascinating stories and pieces of our past that would be lost forever.