06 November 2012

Of War and Methodism (but mostly Methodism)

Neville Trueman, the Pioneer Preacher:
     A Tale of the War of 1812
W.H. Withrow
Toronto: William Briggs, 1900

"Towards the close of a sultry day in July, in the year 1812, might have been seen a young man riding along the beautiful west bank of the Niagara River," begins Neville Trueman. The key word is "might". A young man might have been seen riding. That young man might have been a Methodist preacher. That Methodist preacher might have done the things attributed to him in this novel. One thing is for certain, Neville Trueman was not his real name.

The author owns up to this fabrication in early editions, going so far as to append a footnote to the novel's very title. In this fourth and final edition, however, Withrow drops the bit about "slightly assumed names", along with the opening verse about "the dreadful clouds of war". Everything else is otherwise as it had been since 1879, when Neville Trueman, the Pioneer Preacher made its debut in the pages of The Canadian Methodist Magazine, a periodical edited by the author, Rev William Henry Withrow, DD, FRSC.

His Tale of the War of 1812 opens on the very first day of the conflict with Rev Neville Trueman, "a prominent figure in the history of early Methodism", riding along the Niagara bluffs toward the home of Squire Drayton, son Zenas and chaste daughter Katherine. Though a Vermonter, Trueman cannot support his country's war of aggression. "I believe the colonists were right in resisting oppression in '76", he tells his hosts, "but I believe they are wrong in invading Canada now, and I wash my hands of their crime." There are, he prophesies, horrors to come in this ruinous and unjust war.

Where it not for the reverend's next words, I might've clasped this man of the cloth to my bosom. "What I dread most is the effect on religion", says Trueman, revealing that what troubles him most is not the coming violence, the destruction and the slaughter, but the obstacle posed by the war in trying to convert Canadians to Methodism.

Such a trooper that Neville, in the years that follow he moves from battlefield to battlefield  administering to the spiritual health of the wounded and the dying. He's here, he's there... but he's not everywhere. Despite being the title character, Trueman disappears for dozens of pages at a time. We make the  reverend's acquaintance in chapter one, but do not see him again until we're well into chapter five. For those who aren't Methodists, Trueman greatest moment of glory comes in chapter nine, "A Brave Woman's Exploit", in which he happens upon Laura Secord. So weak is the Heroine of Upper Canada, that it falls upon Neville to deliver information of an American invasion to James FitzGibbon.

Rev Withrow makes much of his research in this historical novel, claiming "pains" taken in "the careful study of the most authentic memoirs, documents, and histories referring to the period; by personal examination of the physical aspect of the scene of the story; and by frequent conversations with some of the principal actors in the stirring drama of the time". To be sure, there are footnotes, but the laziest of eyes will take in the sorry fact that by far the most cited reference is Withrow's own History of Canada.

One day in the future someone might attempt to separate fact from fiction. Might that person be me? Not on your life.

Favourite sentence:
At his feet swept the broad and noble river, reflecting on its surface the snowy masses of "thunderhead" clouds, around which the lightning still played, and which, transfigured and glorified in the light of the setting sun, seemed to the poetic imagination of the young man like the City of God descending out of heaven, with its streets of gold and foundations of precious stones, while the rainbow that spanned the heavens seemed like the rainbow of the Apocalypse round about the throne of God. 
I found "the broad and noble river", the Niagara, looked quite different when I visited this past summer.  A lack of poetic imagination, I suppose.

Object: A hardcover, presumably issued sans dust jacket, Neville Trueman, the Pioneer Preacher is by far the blandest William Briggs book I've ever encountered. The frontispiece, providing the lone image, is of interest only in that it has nothing whatsoever to do with what is to follow.

My 1900 copy followed the first edition by twenty years. It once belonged to an institution known as "St. Giles S. S.", of which I can find no trace.

Access: Those looking to read this book are directed to our universities and the Toronto Public Library. The earliest copies being sold online – all dating from 1900 – go for between US$12 and US$65. Condition is not a factor.

There have been at least two English editions, both of which appeared under the title A Victory and Its Cost. The earliest, which the British Library traces back to 1893, was published by the Wesleyan Methodist Sunday School Union. 

There has never been a proper American edition – given how badly our southern cousins come off, how could there be? Of course, this hasn't stopped the POD turkey vultures. Kessinger and General Books have moved in to flog their usual expensive dreck, but the stand-out comes from BiblioBazaar (a/k/a BiblioLife). Regular readers of Caustic Cover Critic will recognize "the bicycle Heathcliff used on his trips through the moors" that graces the cover.

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