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Friday, August 20, 2010

Reader's Diary #641- Jill Foran: Mary Schaffer, An Adventurous Woman's Exploits in the Canadian Rockies

Remember those wonderful viral videos Where In The Hell is Matt? Why were we so delighted with this doofus dancing his way around the world? Sir Richard Branson's probably been to all of these places and I'm sure if we looked for media footage online, we could find it. Well, Branson's a billionaire, isn't he? Rich people are supposed to jet around the world like it's their backyard, it's what they do. If I won the lottery, I'd do the same. But there's something more exciting about Matt's story. I'm reminded of Peter Travers' recent critique of Eat, Pray, Love:
The movie left me with the feeling of being trapped with a person of privilege who won't stop with the whine whine whine.

Not that Branson seems to be a whiner, nor did Mary Schaffer, but it makes their hardships a little harder to take seriously.

I doubt Jill Foran set out to minimize Schaffer's exploration into the Canadian Rockies in the early 1900s. More likely she set out to do the opposite. This was published by Amazing Stories, after all. But Foran couldn't deny certain facts. Schaffer was a privileged woman. She was born into a wealthy family and married wealthy. Unfortunately, despite attempts to make Schaffer appear to be an important figure in history, she comes across as mildly interesting at best.

On their website, the publishers credit Mary with "extend[ing] the boundaries for adventurous women in the early 20th century." Well, maybe rich adventurous women. Yes, there were other wealthy women at the time and most weren't off touring the Canadian wilderness, but Mary didn't feel that she fit in with "polite society" and had the means to do something about it. I'm sure there were plenty of other women at the time who felt the oppression of a male dominated society, but most of them probably couldn't just pay their way out. I'm not blaming Mary of course that she was born to rich parents, but hers doesn't exactly make an inspirational story. At least the way Foran tells it.

Despite titles such as "A Rebel Was Born" and "Getting Brave," Foran fails to prove that Schaffer is the feminist leader or iconic explorer that people claim. In the chapter titled "Starting Over" Schaffer's parents die and shortly after her husband follows suit. She's suddenly scared that her life of leisure would be cut short. Finally some drama. Did Schaffer find herself suddenly scrubbing floors for her rich friends, mocked and humiliated? Oh no. Instead she called up her old friend R.B. Bennett (remember him, he was our 11th Prime Minister?) who subsequently gave her investment advice and helped her hang on to her fortune. Seriously? That's starting over? Wow, a real riches to riches story.

She paid male tour guides and trailblazers to take her into the woods, places where others had already been no less, and other women went with her. Why is Schaffer singled out as anything more than a curiousity?

Foran's writing is simple and direct and would be an easy read for a preteen. Unfortunately, it's also dull and lacking depth. If Schaffer was a remarkable woman, Foran has done a disservice to her memory. Then again, maybe she wasn't. In either case, it's not an Amazing Story.

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