The Night the Mice Danced the Quadrille

Their luckless dad, who could not make a go of it in Philadelphia, had moved his family to Toronto, and still without work, decided he`d find success farming free land up in Muskoka to feed his hungry family. He`d ended up in a squatter`s shack by the time he sent for his boys in December 1874.

The three survived for five years. Others did not. One winter Thomas, trudging through the snow-filled forests, came upon a cabin that looked unoccupied because no smoke rose from its chimney. When he pushed open the door, he found a woman and her three children who had perished through starvation and freezing to death.

The Osbornes themselves danced with death almost daily: falling through the ice in winter, accidents with the axe, encounters with bears and wolves, no food to eat, logging accidents, fights with neighbours. Swarming black-flies and mosquitoes were inconsequential to muscular and tough Thomas, who had become truly bush-hardened.

Yet the pendulum swung in the other direction, too: excellent fishing far above the legal limit, diving naked into cooling waters on a hot summer`s day, fine roasts of out-of-season venison (once even served to the game warden who enjoyed the `beef` when he over-nighted at the Osborne cabin), speedy sailing using a sheet on wind-swept lakes, pristine waters and dark rolling forests, morning mists and flaming sunsets.

Thomas and Arthur learned how to fish, hunt and trap, grow crops and preserve them, build a canoe, work as woodsmen, back each other when confronted by bullies, and survive the frozen depths of endless winter.

Fifty-five years after Thomas had escaped Muskoka's rudimentary conditions by returning to the United States, he wrote with astonishing recall a memoir of those five years in our district`s backwoods.

Published in 1995, it is a true Canadian classic of man contending with nature. From the opening line, the book`s youthful narrator endears himself to readers with his lively account, written with honesty and unadorned style. Osborne`s clear-eyed report on the reality of pioneer experience fascinates like a novel, enriches like a history lesson, and entertains in turns that are highly amusing and deeply moving.

Yet The Night the Mice Danced the Quadrille (it's odd title stemming from Thomas' hallucination when near starvation) is today a "vanished treasure" &ndash another of Muskoka's out-of-print books.

— Review by John Denison

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