Discovering Nan Dorland: writing in the bush

Jim Chief. Sketch from photo by Jack Bush

by Joan Champ

The following is the ninth installment in a series about Nan Dorland, a radio star from New York City who struggled to become a writer and a prospector in northern Saskatchewan. Follow at or on Instagram @discoveringnan.

In 1941, when Nan and Richard Morenus gave up city life and moved to an island in Ontario bush country, a typewriter accompanied them. For the next six years both Nan and Richard wrote articles and radio scripts to finance their new wilderness life.

It was Nan’s ambition to be a writer. While she collaborated with Richard in the writing of radio scripts during the late 1930s, to my knowledge it was another decade before any of her work was published. 

On October 15, 1946, Nan’s first-ever magazine article “Jim Chief” was published in Maclean’s. The editor wrote that it was “one of the best articles we have ever published by a beginner.”

Nan wrote her article in “no set writing hours, due to the exigencies of bush life,” she told the editor of Maclean’s. “The piece, written last winter, took about four months of snatching minutes out of her routine of baking bread, snaring rabbits, driving a dog team to help haul wood, butchering venison, knitting socks and mitts, fishing through ice, washing fleece-lined underwear, and cooking four meals a day to keep her husband and herself fortified against those biting northern temperatures – as cold as 50 below zero,” MacLean’s wrote. “She says writing this article about Old Jim was always a joy, because he was her favorite bush character.”

Like other portrayals of Indigenous peoples during the 1940s, however, Nan’s story of Jim Chief – while sympathetic – contains racist, condescending, and patronizing language. This is clear from the opening paragraph. “Early November freeze-up was threatening when Jim Chief and his squaw paddled up to our island on their first official visit. Jim was our nearest neighbor on our northern lake—a tattered, aged Ojibway we were soon to know as a reprobate and a rascal, and so charming that it was impossible not to like him.”

Nan and Richard became friends with Jim Chief, who “came by the Island regularly, exhibiting a wistful, almost pitiful need to chat,” Nan writes. “He would sit in a corner of the cabin an hour or more until, having talked himself out, he would rise abruptly and shuffle out the door with a vague backward gesture of farewell.”

Once, when Richard was away in New York on business connected to their radio writing, Jim Chief helped Nan get out of a sticky situation. Three intoxicated white men showed up at the island. “There was an ugliness to their drunkenness that made me uneasy,” Nan writes. Fortunately, Jim Chief, who paddled by the island every day to check on Nan, chose that moment to show up. Nan signaled to him. She describes what happened next:

“I glanced behind me. All three men were sprawled on the cabin steps and demanding that I join them. [Jim Chief] sat motionless in the [canoe] in an attitude of watchful waiting. … With his wide-brimmed, battered old hat jammed low on his brow, the droop of that left eyelid somehow managed a sinister look. And better still, the barrel of his venerable rifle protruded over the bow of the canoe. … Innocently slung there, it now presented unexpected menace by pointing directly at my three unwelcome guests. … Gradually the drinking party on my cabin steps dissolved. The men filed by me, keeping a weather eye on the ominous character in the canoe gazing so steadily at them from behind the well-armed bow. In a remarkably short time the loaded skiff was offshore, the faulty motor resumed its half-hearted, intermittent putt-putting up the river, and the men were out of sight.”

Eventually Jim Chief grew ill and his visits to the Morenuses stopped. “To our surprise we missed him greatly,” Nan writes. “Life in the bush without Jim Chief appearing with his gossip, his schemes, his primordial guile left a hole in our existence as gaping as the loss of one of the seasons.” 

The editor noted at the end of Nan’s article that, just as the story was going to press, Maclean’s received a hurried note from her. “Old Jim,” she wrote, “was found dead in his wigwam some six weeks following my completion of his story. And now the lakes and bush are empty indeed.”