13 March 2011

Getting to the Fenian Raids

In the Midst of Alarms
Robert Barr
New York: Stokes, 1894

With St Patrick's Day on the horizon thoughts turn to the Fenians. And why not? Their ill-considered incursions helped induce the birth of this country. Tragicomic, the Fenian Raids seem suited for satire, so why is that after nearly fifteen decades this forgotten novel stands alone in using those troublous times as a backdrop?

Never having before read Barr, I had more than modest expectations for this book. After all, the writer was very much respected in his day. True, he was "popular", but so were his friends Joseph Conrad, Henry James and Arthur Conan Doyle. And consider this: as a volunteer soldier, Barr helped defend the Niagara frontier during the raids. Sadly, nothing of his experience seems much in evidence here.

The novel begins well with a strong chapter focused on the reunion of old school chums Stillson Renwick and Richard Yates in a Fenian infested Buffalo hotel. Fifteen years have passed since their last meeting, during which Renwick has become a proper, polite professor at the University of Toronto. Yates, in stark contrast, has quit Canada for a fast-paced life as a New York journalist. He is a drinker, a gambler, a womanizer and overall bon vivant, a man whose drive has very nearly put him behind asylum gates. A change of pace is required – so he's been told – and the journalist has decided a week or two of camping with his passive pal Renwick is just the thing to cure his ills.

The next day, the pair crosses the Niagara into Canada, leaving behind all intrigue and excitement for woodland pleasures. "The Odd Couple Go Camping" isn't much of an idea; Barr seems to recognize as much by introducing Kitty Bartlett and Margaret Howard, two attractive farmers' daughters for the men to pursue. Further pages – chapters, in some instances – are devoted to topics such as soap making, bread baking, and the dueling roles of the rural blacksmith and village grocer in the years preceding Confederation. All quite accurate observations, from what I can tell, but it does become a bit tiresome. The chapter devoted to the mid-19th-century public library policies of Canada West bores even a bookish fellow like myself.

But where are the Fenians in all this? They're rarely mentioned; no one takes the threat of invasion seriously. "They won't venture over", predicts journalist Yates, the man with his ear closest to the ground. "They fight with their mouths. It's the safest way."

When the Fenians do finally invade, well over half-way through the novel, encounters are fleeting. Renwick and Yates are captured, marched to the Fenian camp, have a brief exchange with "General" John O'Neill, and are released. The professor and the journalist are far away when the fighting begins. Barr's description of the absurd comedy of errors that was the Battle of Ridgeway is limited to a dispassionate, two-page factual account that reads like something ripped from an old high school textbook.

"The farce is known as the Battle of Ridgeway, and would have been comical had it not been that death hovered over it," Barr concludes.

Too soon?

Bloomer: "Touch a man on his business, and he generally responds by being interested."

Object: A small volume with microscopic type, this "SECOND EDITION" features five substandard illustrations by C. Moore Smith.

Small wonder that later editions featured scenes imagined by the talented Harrison Fisher.

Access: Our academic libraries succeed while our public libraries fail. Those of Fort Erie, Port Colborne and Welland, all key communities in the Battle of Ridgeway, lack copies. In Canada, only the taxpayers of Toronto and Vancouver are properly served. The novel is much more common south of the border.

In the Midst of Alarms was a bestseller in its day, and was reprinted for many years thereafter, but there isn't much evidence of this online. The armful of 19th-century copies currently listed range between ten and thirty dollars. As might be expected, print on demand farms dominate, displaying editions of ugliness and ineptitude. Nabu Press is the worst offender, offering the booklover a choice of covers depicting the snow covered mountains of southern Ontario and the ancient ruins of Fort Erie.

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