11 March 2010

A Friend of the Family

Adopted Derelicts
Bluebell S. Phillips
Toronto: Harlequin, 1957

I grew up in a house of books, but not a family of writers. Not really. My father had just begun work on what might have been his debut, a history of the CBC, when he was struck down by a heart attack at age forty-two. Two decades later, his younger brother, my uncle, co-authored a slim volume on the Anglicans in Mission program.

As a kid, the only writer I knew was Bluebell Phillips. A generation older than my mother, Mrs Phillips was an occasional visitor to our house. I don't think she crossed the threshold more than once a year, but when she did Mrs Phillips always left behind a copy of her latest book. The Plate Glass Sky, Selected Poems, A Glass Prairie, Windrush, The Alleyne Curse... these looked for all the world like vanity publications. Still, I was in awe of this elderly lady. I knew that there had been other books in the past; books published by real publishers. Ryerson had put out Something Always Turned Up and The Fair Promise had been published by Robert Hale – in England! Though both were hardcovers, the height of accomplishment to my young mind, the book to which I was most attracted was this mass market paperback. "Murderers, gunmen, prostitutes..." promises the cover. What adolescent could resist?

For more than a decade Mrs Phillips and her husband, Rev Gordon Phillips, had welcomed newly released prisoners to share their five-room Montreal apartment. I read and reread about the crimes these houseguests had committed. Down and out lovers Joe and Lillian supported themselves by shoplifting, petty crook Abie Cohen was framed for bank robbery and a very passable transvestite named Willa ended up in the Bordeaux prison after fending off an assault by an "aggressive Lesbian". Titillating and exciting, yes, but Mrs Phillips' goal was to show "the WHY as well as the WHAT of their anti-social behavior". Her hope was that the reader would come to sympathize and raise a voice in support of cure in place of punishment.

Revisiting the work after all these decades, I see much that escaped me. I overlooked the larger story... the one of a generous couple who had dedicated themselves to helping these folks become a part of society. That they succeeded even once is so much greater an achievement than having had a book published in hardcover.

Something else I missed: the Acknowledgements features thanks to M Busby, my father.

Trivia: The Fair Promise was published in West Germany as Ein zärtliches Versprechen.

Object and Access: A typical Harlequin paperback. There are currently only three copies offered online, none of which is in particularly great shape. Expect to pay somewhere in the range of ten dollars. It would appear that only Library and Archives Canada holds a copy.

1 comment:

  1. I knew of the book but nothing of the author - didn't know gender or nationality- so very interesting article.

    By the way looking forward to your article CN&Q I saw announced in the latest issue.