22 May 2017

More Victoria Day Disaster Verse

The Toronto Daily Mail
25 May 1881
John Wilson Bengough's poem on the wreck of the Victoria on Victoria Day, 1881, off the banks of the Canadian Thames. Published in his Motley: Verses Grave and Gay – most certainly an example of the former –  it joins Ingersoll Cheese Poet James McIntyre's succinct "Disaster to Steamer Victoria at London" as verse inspired by the disaster. I honestly can't say which I prefer.

Motley: Verses Grave and GayJ.W. Bengough
Toronto: William Briggs, 1895

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14 May 2017

A Novel My Mother Read

Glengarry School Days:
     A Story of the Early Days in Glengarry
Ralph Connor [pseud. Rev. Charles W. Gordon]
Toronto: Westminster, 1902

My mother was a great reader. Her typical day began by pouring over the Montreal Gazette during breakfast. When finished, she'd turn to a little booklet that provided a passage from the Bible with a brief commentary. The books she read dealt primarily with politics and the environment. In her mind, religion, politics and the environment were inextricably linked.

My mother never expressed much interested in fiction. I remember her reading Five Smooth Stones, Ann Fairbairn's 1966 bestseller, but I'm certain this was only because someone once gave her a copy as a Christmas gift.

Five Smooth Stones is 932 pages long. She was a good friend.

The only other fiction I remember my mother reading was I Am Barabbas, a religious historical novel written by Laurence H. Blackburn (author of God Wants You to Be Well and The Evaluation of Physiological Syncope in Aviation Personnel). I'm sure there were other novels. Her copy of Erskine Caldwell's Tobacco Road, the 1946 Collins White Circle Edition, sits on my shelves.

Strange to think she bought this as an eighteen-year-old. Tastes change, I suppose. People, too.

Glengarry School Days is the only Canadian novel that I know for a fact my mother read. I have  memories of her telling us – my sister and I – whenever we passed through Glengarry County on annual visits to our Upper Canadian cousins. Of the novel itself, my mother said nothing. Having read it now myself, I wonder how much she remembered?

Published in 1902, the year after The Man from Glengarry, Glengarry School Days is not so much a sequel as filler. It takes place during the same time period as the earliest chapters of the former, though you'd never know it. The characters are familiar – Rev Murray, Mrs Murray, Hughie Murray, and Ranald Macdonald, to name just four – but no references are made to the events of The Man from Glengarry. There is no overarching narrative, rather the book consists of a series of episodes, as reflected in the chapter titles: The Spelling-Match, The New Master, The Bear Hunt, etc.

Judith Skelton Grant and others suggest that Glengarry School Days is drawn the author's memories of the county and the one-room schoolhouse he attended as a child. I'm sure they're right, and it is in this the novel's strengths and flaws lie. Connor's attention to detail may be of value to cultural historian, but it stalls the plot, as in this early passage:
The afternoon was given to the more serious part of the school work – writing, arithmetic, and spelling, while, for those whose ambitions extended beyond the limits of the public school, the master had begun a Euclid class, which was at once his despair and his pride. In the Twentieth school of that date there was no waste of the children's time in foolish and fantastic branches of study, in showy exercises and accomplishments, whose display was at once ruinous to the nerves of the visitors, and to the self-respect and modesty of the children. The ideal of the school was to fit the children for the struggle into which their lives would thrust them, so that the boy who could spell and read and cipher was supposed to be ready for his life work. Those whose ambition led them into the subtleties of Euclid's problems and theorems were supposed to be in preparation for somewhat higher spheres of life.
Schoolhouse aside, the unifying element of the novel is religion. As in The Man from Glengarry, it is the flawless, saintly Mrs Murray – and not her ordained husband – who serves as spiritual guide, leading boys and young men the path they will follow tho become clergymen. Their number includes cynical city boy Jack Craven, the last in a line of schoolteachers.

No more drinking for Jack!

In this novel, Mrs Murray's example is echoed in Mrs Finch, the mother of Hughie's good friend Thomas. An older boy, Thomas serves as a role model to young Hughie, much like Ranald Macdonald did in The Man from Glengarry (in which, it should be noted, Thomas is not so much as mentioned). The two are similar in both character and family, the most obvious difference being that Ranald's mother is dead. Thomas's mother is still alive, though she is suffering a long, slow death from breast cancer. Mrs Finch nearly makes it to the end of the novel, expiring with just two pages to go.

I spoil nothing. You can see it coming.

The deathbed scene is melodramatic and jarring, particularly given the subtlety of the message imparted throughout Glengarry School Days. You see, it is Thomas, not his sisters, who nurses Mrs Finch through her final months. Connor wants to demonstrate that one can be masculine and muscular – or, best of all, a Muscular Christian – and still be tender, gentle and loving.

A good son, that Thomas Finch. A role model for us all.

Homage: The fourth chapter begins with a conversation between Mr and Mrs Bushy (not Busby), two squirrels who live by the schoolhouse in an old beech tree. Lasting two pages, the exchange is entirely out of place. I was reminded of nothing so much as the animal stories Charles G.D. Roberts and Ernest Thompson Seton – particularly Bannertail – which, of course, was Connor's intent.

Trivia: All UK editions – four that I can count – were published by Hodder & Stoughton under the title Glengarry Days.

Object: I own two copies. The one I read appears to be the first Canadian edition... or so a bookseller once claimed. I have no reason to doubt. It also appears to have once belonged to a man – or, perhaps, boy – named Dougal Sinclair. Might this be the same Dougal Sinclair, a 21-year-old dry goods clerk, who was recorded in the 1901 census as living in Glengarry? I like to think so.

Three hundred and fifty pages in olive green cloth, I bought it four years ago in London, Ontario. Price: $2.00.

Access: Once a mainstay, today's Canadian public library patrons will find that themselves served only by this country's very largest. Fortunately, copies of Glengarry School Days are held by nearly every academic institution in the country.

There have been numerous Canadian, American and British editions. Used copies are plentiful and cheap. I expect few booksellers bother listing it online. My advice is to go for one of the Westminster editions.

The novel was a longstanding title in the New Canadian Library, and somehow survived as part of the series to the end. The last NCL edition – price: $17.95 – is still listed on the publisher's website. Do not bother looking for it in our national chain; not one of its 231 stores stocks a copy.

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08 May 2017

The Return of The Pyx

It's no great secret – and certainly no deadly secret – that this spring's Ricochet Books title will be John Buell's masterful debut novel, The Pyx. The reissue was announced a few months ago, though I haven't mentioned it here.

I should have. I've never felt so proud in working to return a title to print.

No Canadian novelist has been so unjustly neglected as John Buell. He was published by Farrar, Straus, he was praised by Edmund Wilson, and he has been out of print for more than a quarter century. I never once heard John Buell's name in the years I studied at Concordia University... the very same university at which he was teaching.

Wish I'd known.

Sean Kelly was one of Buell's students. This was years earlier, when The Pyx was first published. Sean was good enough to write the introduction to the new Ricochet edition. It begins:
In 1959, when his novel The Pyx was published, John Buell was a 32-year old professor at Loyola College, where I was a first-year student and he saved my life.
The first half of Sean's introduction has just been published in Concordia University Magazine. You can read it and the rest of the issue online – gratis – through this link. Sean's piece features on the third to last page.

The Ricochet edition of The Pyx will hit bookstores later this month. It can be pre-ordered through the publisher and online booksellers.

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01 May 2017

A Gangster Finds God

Ernie Hollands with Doug Brendel
Toronto: Mainroads Productions, 1987
A stolen car took me there. Hollywood was a grotesque paradise for me, with wide streets lit up  in neon, hundreds of peep shows where a guy could see a pornographic movie for a quarter, fifty cents if it was really raunchy. Teenage boys and senior citizens seemed to keep the place in business. Roaming the sidewalks were real-life versions of the girls in the porno flicks, painted-up prostitutes, some barely into their teens, others obviously pushing fifty. And liquor flowed freely everywhere.
Ernie Hollands is a smalltime crook looking to make it big in Hollywood. He thinks that pulling off heists in Tinseltown – as opposed to, say, Moose Jaw – will make him "someone with class, with clout, with a great reputation." Things don't go quite as planned. His first few days are wasted whoring, drinking, and selling stolen wristwatches. Eventually, he sets his sites on a Hollywood Boulevard grocery store: "They were doing big business, with customers swarming the aisles, and cash registers ringing like church bells, as the cashiers took in fives and tens, the twenties, the mounds of ones."

Ernie plans to rob the place after hours, then use the money to plan a big bank heist – "something to get real headlines." Because he'll be needing food as he works out the details, Ernie decides to shoplift from the very same supermarket. What he doesn't bank on – sorry – is a cop watching behind a plate of one-way glass. The cop stops the crook, patts him down, and finds a loaded .38. They struggle. The gun goes off:
My eyes fell on the policeman's leg. The wound, just below the knee, was pumping blood furiously. I was mortified.
     "Take the gun!" I shouted, holding the weapon out to him. "Take the gun!"
The cop grabs the gun with one hand, "grasping his bloody leg" with the other:
"I should put a bullet tight through you," he growled, and I knew he was serious. In the pit of my stomach, I was sick to see what I had done. And, in the moment, my whole life – all forty-two years of it – made me sick. I had accomplished nothing, I was little more than a wart on society's skin. I was slime. And this seemed to prove it to me, finally.
     "Go ahead," I replied as I stared down the barrel of the gun. "You'd be doing me a favor."
An autobiography that reads like a pulp novel, Hooked begins with the author's final crime – then flashes back to his childhood. There's nothing to envy. The son of a sixteen-year-old mother and forty-seven-year-old father, Ernie grows up surrounded by siblings in a two-room
Ernie Hollands at 17
Halifax slum house. There was only one pot to piss in. At age eight, Ernie learns that his parent's affection can be bought by shoplifting food and booze. A bit of an entrepreneur, he steals bundles of newspapers left on the curb for carriers and sells them at a discount in all-night restaurants. Ernie was a hellion at school, which gave mean Mrs Toblin an excuse to pull down his pants and give him the cane.

He ends up at the Halifax Industrial School – more of a prison, really – from which he makes his first great escape. What happens next is a bit of a blur. Ernie moves between Canada and the United States, picking pockets, shoplifting, and breaking into homes of the affluent. Every once in a while he gets caught, is sentenced, and then manages to escape. You'd almost think someone was looking out for him.

If there is a problem with Hooked, it is that its author has too much to confess; his crimes are so numerous, and the book so short, that not many are gone into in any detail. The one I remember most involves jewelry. Somewhere in the States, he teams up with a drunk to rob the home of a couple who own a grocery store. Their eighteen-year-old daughter stumbles upon the scene and is locked in a closet. The sound of her pounding on the door has Ernie realize that she's wearing a ring – which turns out to be an engagement ring – and so he opens the door and takes it.

Shows what a right bastard he was.

Ernie remained a bastard for many of the years that followed, and he kept getting lucky breaks. He has to serve only one year for shooting that Hollywood cop. After that, Ernie is extradited, and ends up in Millhaven, where his reputation as a cop-shooter brings considerable respect. Life is pretty good: "I had a radio, earphones, cigarettes, plenty of food, numerous books". The inmates are encouraged to take up hobbies – painting, needlepoint, sculpting – but none of these appeal. Eventually, he settles on fly-tying, and quickly develops a reputation as a master. Sports shops take notice, as does the press – "Time Flies Tying Flies" is the headline in the Toronto Star – and it isn't long before Ernie is raking it in:
I was making two or three thousand dollars a month, all tax-free. The taxpayers of Canada were paying my way, providing my housing, my utilities, my meals, my entertainment. I sat in my cell, smoking cigars by the case, watching television, reading filthy magazines, tying flies, and counting the money.
Those words appear on page 113 of this 146-page autobiography. The thirty or so pages that follow would have come as a surprise had the book's cover not promised a dramatic "before and after" saga I have ever read. What follows lives up to that grand claim.

Hoping to flog his wares, Ernie writes to Grant Bailey, the owner of a Pembroke, Ontario sporting goods store. He gets no order in response, but two religious tracts, along with a lengthy letter in which the storeowner recounts his journey to accept Jesus Christ as his Saviour. Ernie strings Bailey along, which unleashes a steady stream of tracts and books. Ultimately, they have the greatest effect:
On March 12, 1975, at two a.m., I got out of bed and I knelt in my cell in Milhaven Prison. I held my Bible and I raised my hands in the air. With tears streaming down my face, I let Jesus set me free.
The beginning of a remarkable scene, it's very well described in the book, but I much prefer Ernie's account from a later appearance on 100 Huntley Street:

I admit to being cynical about such things – can we agree that the percentage of crooks amongst evangelical preachers is very high? – but I've seen nothing to suggest that Ernie didn't leave crime behind. He married a widow, adopted her children, and at age fifty fathered his first child. He also founded Hebron Farm, an institution dedicated to helping ex-cons reenter society.

Hooked has an interesting structure in that the pages dealing with Ernie's redemption and Born Again life are so few. It's much more about crime than Christ, though the latter wins out in the end.

Ernie Hollands died in 1996, at the age of sixty-six. A smalltime crook who looked to make it big, he died a bigger man.

The critics rave: The only reviews I've seen for Hooked are the three on the back of the book itself. Two are provided by men associated with Full Gospel Business Men's Fellowship International, an organization that was new to me. The  third comes courtesy of John Wesley White:

I've written about Dr White's own books many times over the years – Arming for Armageddon, Thinking the Unthinkable, and Re-Entry – and can attest that his literary criticism is superior to his music criticism. Yes, once you pick Hooked up you will not get stopped.

Object: A cheap 145-page mass market paperback. I found my copy, a third printing, five years ago at the Stratford Salvation Army Thrift Store. Price: $1.00. Signed.

It came with a colour postcard of the Hollands family. Suitable for mailing.

Access: If information in my copy is to be believed – and I see no reason to doubt – 270,000 copies of Hooked were published in the first four years of its release. I've seen a later video in which Ernie pegs the number at a held-million. Not surprisingly, it is being sold online for as little as one American dollar. A crooked New Hampshire bookseller hopes to get US$96.71. At US$6.98, the lone signed copy is the one to buy.

Hooked is still in print, and can be bought directly from Hebron Ministries for eight Canadian dollars.

Library and Archives Canada has a copy, as do Portage College and something called Theolog in Vancouver.

I've seen two translations, French and Spanish, though Hebron Ministries informs that there are also Russian and Chinese translations in circulation.

I have no reason to doubt.

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21 April 2017

CNQ Scores National Magazine Award Noms

Word from Toronto yesterday that the Canadian Notes & Queries "Games Issue" has been nominated for a National Magazine Award. Congratulations to all who contributed:
Chris Andrechek
Tobias Carroll
Vincent Colistro
Daniel Donaldson
Alex Good
Spencer Gordon
Kasper Hartman
David Mason
Maurice Mierau
David Nickel
Alexandra Oliver
Mark Sampson
Robert Earl Stewart
Kaitlin Tremblay
Most of all, congratulations and thanks to editor Emily Donaldson, who not only put the whole thing together, but earned a second nomination for her essay "Pinball: A Walking Tour". Emily's essay is available online here at the CNQ website.

My own contribution to the issue, concerning Pierre Berton and Charles Templeton's foray into the competitive board games industry, can also be read online: "Tour de Force Reawakens".

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17 April 2017

A Motorola TV Hour Nightmare

A not-so-brief follow-up to last week's post on Judith Merril's Shadow on the Hearth.

"The title of my book had been chosen by the publishers in preference to about a dozen other titles I had provided, all of which pointed towards the idea of atomic war," writes Judith Merril in her unfinished autobiography, Better to Have Loved (Toronto: Between the Lines, 2002). Was Atomic Attack one of them? I prefer Shadow on the Hearth, just as I prefer her novel to the television adaptation.

Atomic Attack aired on 18 May 1954, as part of the first and only season of The Motorola TV Hour. The director was Ralph Nelson, justly celebrated for the films Requiem for a Heavyweight and Lilies of the Field. So why is this so bad?

Blame lies with writer David Davison's script, though I do wonder whether it was entirely his fault. A New York newspaperman, in 1947 Davidson earned significant praise for his debut novel, The Steeper Cliff. The story of an American serviceman's search for a missing person in post-war Bavaria, it was published in the United States, Britain and Australia (right). Through much of the 'fifties, Davidson made good money writing for Kraft TheaterThe Ford Theater Hour, The Alcoa Hour, The Elgin Hour, and The United States Steel Hour, but had become disenchanted by decade's end. Davidson's moment in the spotlight came in 1961, when he appeared before the FCC to testify on the networks' deteriorating standards, which he blamed on the pursuit of ratings. By that time he'd all but given up writing for television. His two remaining decades were spent teaching.

Was Motorola just after ratings with Atomic Attack?

I ask because it ended up with so much more. Cold War historian Bill Geerhart informs that the teleplay was used in Civil Defense instruction and was listed for rent or sale in government catalogues. Indeed, the opening of Atomic Attack sounds every bit like propaganda:
The play you are about to see deals with an imaginary H-Bomb attack on New York City, and with the measures Civil Defense would take in such an event for the rescue and protection of the population in and around the city.
Davidson cuts the first two pages of Shadow on the Hearth, in which Veda calls in sick, and begins with the Mitchells – Gladys (Phyllis Thaxter), Barbie (Patsy Bruder), Ginny (Patty McCormack) and Jon (uncredited) at breakfast. It's a short scene, though it establishes all we need to know about the family and the busy day ahead: Jon is off to work, the girls are off to school, the maid is ill, and there's washing to be done.

Cut to the blandest of establishing shots:

Gladys descends the stairs and there is a blinding flash of light. She thinks a blown fuse is to blame, until rocked by a shockwave. Air raid sirens sound.

Extreme overacting follows, though I can't quite bring myself to fault Thaxter, who is stuck delivering this long monologue as she races about the house:
"Air raid? No. No, no, it can't be! Children! Jon! Clouds of smoke! Coming up from the south, from New York! Mrs Jackson! Mrs Jackson, what's happened! Don't you hear me? Oh, please! Is nobody home?"
This last bit is yelled out her kitchen window. Gladys rushes through the dining room and living room to the vestibule closet and then the telephone:
"Children at school. Jon! Jon at the office in New York. Oh, New York. New York. Operator? Long distance. No answer. Try the local operator. Operator? Somebody? No answer from anybody! Children. Must get down to school."
She throws on her raincoat and is almost out the door when the radio she'd turned on moments earlier comes to life:
"Your attention, please. We interrupt our normal program to cooperate in security and Civil Defense measures as requested by the United States government. This is a CONELRAD radio alert. Listen carefully. This station is now leaving the air. Tune your standard radio receiver to 640 or 1240 kilocycles for official Civil Defense instructions and news. Once again – Your attention, please! Your attention, please! This is your official Civil Defense broadcaster. An explosion has just taken place in New York City, which has believed to have resulted from the dropping of a hydrogen bomb. The bomb was probably carried by a guided missile launched from a submarine at sea! All Civil Defense workers report to emergency stations immediately."
"The children!" she cries. Gladys rushes to leave, but stops when she hears this:
Stay where you are, unless you are in immediate danger! Do not attempt to join your children if they are in school! They are being well taken care of where they are! Do not try to telephone! Remember: radioactivity may make food and water in open containers dangerous. Use canned and otherwise protected foods until further notice. Do not attempt to enquire about relatives in New York – as yet there is no information!

It reminded me of nothing so much as an old Gilda Radner sketch.

The remaining forty-three minutes of Atomic Attack – it runs fifty – aren't quite as funny, which isn't to say that they're not worth watching, particularly for readers of the book. After all, Shadow on the Hearth was written by a Trotskyist who would one day relocate to Canada in part because she "could no longer accept the realpolitik of being an American citizen." Atomic Attack strips away all shading and uncertainty, with everyone living under a government that has the situation well in  hand. Nowhere is this more evident that in the depiction of Jim Taylor, the Civil Defense Block Warden. Where in the novel he is a nefarious figure who sees the crisis and his new status as a means of manipulating and ultimately bedding Gladys, the Jim Taylor of Atomic Attack (William Kemp) is a by the book, no-nonsense and reliable.

Scientist Garson Levy – rechristened "Garson Lee" (Robert Keith) – has much the same background, but a very different future. As in the novel, he is being pursued by the authorities, but as he discovers this isn't because of his activism; they want him to set up a research project on "radiation exposure and how to deal with it."

Garson should know better than to distrust authority.

A youngish Walter Matthau plays young Dr Spinelli, but nothing is mentioned of his Shadow on the Hearth pacifist background. As in the novel, he takes Ginny to be examined at the hospital, which is here depicted as a calm, professional place with little activity. Ginny aside, the only patient seen is a rambunctious young scamp with a few sores on his face. "They're only important if they're not kept clean," Dr Spinelli reassures.

Other differences have less to do with propaganda than the challenge of cramming a 277-page novel into an Hour that isn't an hour long. Drunken neighbour Edie Cowell is replaced by Mrs Moore (Audrey Christie), one of several homeless people dumped at the Mitchell house by Block Warden Taylor. One of their number, Mrs Harvey (Elizabeth Ross) gives Gladys the opportunity to open up about her concerns for her husband. The scene is interrupted by a phone call from Jon's secretary, who more or less implies the worst. This is the greatest departure. As a reader of the novel, and a viewer familiar with the Hollywood Ending, I fully expected Jon to appear in the closing minutes. This never happens. And, so, a daring, unexpected conclusion.

In Better to Have Loved, Merril writes:
Watching the adaptation was sort of like having a different lens on each of my eyes. One part of me was saying, "They killed my book. They've killed my book." The other part was saying , "But they did the best they could to translate it into television."
I wonder about this.

Atomic Attack can be seen today on YouTube. When did Judith Merril last see it? I'm betting decades before her death – and perhaps only once.

Atomic Attack didn't kill Shadow on the Hearth, nor was it the best one could expect from television. The novel has great potential for adaptation today. Imagine a period piece in which it is believed that exposure to extreme radiation is might be cured. Imagine a time when nuclear weapons weren't nearly so numerous or powerful, a time in which most might actually survive all-out nuclear war.


Trivia: Radio broadcasts come fast and furious in both the novel and the Motorola TV Hour adaptation. In the latter, but not the former, Gladys uses Motorola radios to keep abreast of developments.

Product placement.

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16 April 2017

Easter Verse by Ethel Ursula Foran

Mature juvenilia by Ethel Ursula Foran, from her first volume, Poems: A Few Blossoms from the Garden of My Dreams (Montreal: Beauchemin, 1922):  
                     The holy Lenten season
                     At last has passed away.
                     And to-day we celebrate
                     Our glorions Easter Day.
                     "Reserrexit sicut dixit"
                     The Angels sweetly sing,
                     And in humble adoration
                     Pay homage to their King.
                     "He is risen," Yes, we knew it;
                     He had but the word to say
                     And His glorious, sacred Body
                     Rose from out the tomb that day.
                     Christ has risen," Alleluia,
                     Let us all our treasures bring
                     To the feet of our sweet Savior,
                     To our dear triumphant King.
                     Only one sweet tiny treasure
                     Jesus asks with love divine,
                     'Tis your heart — then won't you give it
                     To your risen Lord and mine?
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11 April 2017

A Nuclear Family Nightmare

Shadow on the Hearth
Judith Merril
New York: Doubleday, 1950

Westchester housewife Gladys Mitchell is leading the life of June Cleaver. True, there had been struggles in her past – the Great Depression, for example – but things are now going swimmingly. She and husband Jon, a highly successful engineer with his own firm in Manhattan, can take pride in having provided a comfortable family home for their three children. Their eldest, freckle-faced Tom, is in the ROTC. Babsy – she now prefers "Barbara" – has begun putting on airs, but is otherwise an agreeable fifteen-year-old. And then there's Ginny, the baby of the family, an adorable little girl of five whose best friend is a stuffed toy horse.

The novel opens on a day like any other with the family – sans Tom, who is away at school – seated around the breakfast table. But then Veda, the poorly-paid Mitchell family maid, calls in sick. Barbara needs some clothing washing done, which means that Gladys won't be free to attend a ladies' luncheon. Oh, and she'd been working so to be accepted!

Jon leaves for work, dropping the girls at school along the way, and Gladys attends to the laundry. She's down in the basement, hovering over her washer and dryer, when there's a sound that is something like thunder. The light streaming through the window doubles in intensity, then becomes very dull. Dismissing it as "a freak electric storm", Gladys dons a new dress, powder and lipstick. It isn't until after the girls return, courtesy of nice new schoolteacher Miss Pollack, that Gladys comes to realize there has been an atomic attack... Atomic Attack being the title of the 1954 Motorola TV Hour adaptation. The news comes courtesy of the radio:
"For those of you who have just tuned in, we repeat: several atomic bombs of unknown origin landed in and near the harbor of New York City this afternoon. The first explosion occurred at about 1:15 P.M., Eastern Standard Time, and was followed by others over a period estimated to be approximately one half hour. It is know that no bombs were dropped after two o'clock. Eyewitnesses state that the first bomb exploded underwater at the mouth of the East River, affecting harbor shipping in New York and Brooklyn, and substantially damaging a large part of the lower tip of Manhattan Island."
Gladys listens in horror – "Jon was in the city all day!" – realizing that she alone must care for the girls and... well, the hearth. If only Veda
hadn't called in sick!

Nearly all 277 pages of Shadow on the Hearth take place in the Mitchell home, which is not to say that things aren't eventful. Early in the crisis, Gladys must deal with troublesome neighbour Edie Crowell, who persists in phoning, despite instructions to leave the lines clear. On the second day, she shows up drunk as a skunk on the front steps.

Can you blame her?

There's a gas leak, which probably has nothing to do with the bombs, but does add to the drama. At another point, thugs try to break in, but are beat back by Dr Garson Levy, the high school's science teacher. Barbara fills her mother in on the doctor's background:
"He knows everything about atom bombs. He was at Oak Ridge and everything… Only he got black-listed or something on account of refusing to do war work, and making a lot of speeches and being on committees, so he had to go be a teacher."
Yes, he had to go to be a teacher.

Levy has been running from house to house informing parents that their children have been exposed to radioactive rain. Local Civil Defence officials are in hot pursuit. When the heat becomes to great, Levy is offered temporary refuge in the Mitchell home, filling something of the void left by missing husband Jon. He fixes a toy, boards windows, and devises a clever solution to that pesky gas problem. Gladys comes to think of him as "Mr Fit-It", but he's so much more. Garson Levy comes equipped with personal geiger counter and everything required to monitor the white blood cells of the Mitchell children.

It's all a bit much.

Fortunately other characters are better drawn, the most interesting being Jim Turner. The Mitchell's hard-nosed next-door neighbour, Gladys is surprised to learn that Turner is the leader of the local Civil Defense squadron.
"Well, nobody else knew either," he assured her. "Nobody who wasn't in it. When you want to win you got to keep a poker face and play it close to the vest. And any time the government let out any information about what we were going some scientist would start yelling about warmongers, or some reds would have a demonstration."
Turner turns up frequently, revelling in his newfound authority, and doing prep work to put the moves on Gladys. As evacuation looks imminent, he tries to dictate where she will live and what she will be doing. Maid Veda reenters the story, dragged in by soldiers who are investigating whether she is a foreign agent. Neighbour Edie plants the seed that maybe, just maybe, the Civil Defense would prefer people like herself dead. We learn that Peter Spinelli, the young medical doctor who accompanies Turner on his route, was denied funding for his studies because of his association with pacifist groups. The press is censored and then disappears, replaced by government broadcasting that consists almost exclusively of lengthy lists of casualties.

These sinister elements run beneath the surface, overwhelmed by a flurry of activity and the ever increasing challenges faced by the survivors. It's such that a broadcast reference to "the military government" passes without comment. Before anyone has a chance to catch their breath, the war comes to an abrupt end. The news comes over the radio:
"Five thirty-seven A.M., Friday, May seventh,” a hoarse voice intoned. “That is the historic moment. We have just received official news from General Headquarters. The war is over! The enemy conceded at 5:37 A.M., Eastern Standard Time, just five minutes ago. Ladies and gentleman, the national anthem!"
As for Jon, he somehow survived the bombs that rain down on Manhattan. In fleeting scenes – vignettes, really – he escapes an infirmary and makes his way to Westchester. Nearing home, he's shot through the shoulder, loses a good amount of blood, and is carried the rest of the way by good Dr Spinelli. Merril's original ending had Jon die. Doubleday wanted a happy ending... so why am I left with the impression that things are only going to get worse?

Object: A first edition of the author's first book, my copy was purchased last year in London at Attic Books. Price: $6.25. The ugly jacket was designed by Edward Kasper, a man whose awkward work I first encountered in the inner gatefold of The Band's Moondog Matinee.

Access: The 1950 Doubleday was followed three years later by Sedgwick & Jackson's first British edition (above left). Remarkably, Shadow on the Hearth has appeared only once in paperback: a 1966, edition published in the UK by Compact Books (above right). It is currently available in Spaced Out: Three Novels of Tomorrow, a collection of Merril's novels published by the New England Science Fiction Association.

There are plenty of first editions listed online, the least expensive being a Good Sedgwick & Jackson at £7.00.

At US$375, the most expensive is a Very Good signed copy of the Doubleday first once belonging to International Festival of Authors' founding Artistic Director Greg Gatenby... but let's not get into that. The bookseller is throwing in a copy of the festival's newspaper tribute to Merril signed by Samuel Delany, Michael Moorcock, Frederick Pohl, Spider Robinson and the lady herself. I recommend the Fine signed copy being offered by a Michigan bookseller. Price: US$87.00.

A German translation, Dunkle Schatten (Dark Shadows), was published in 1983, complete with cover that looks every bit like it comes from the Reagan Era... because it does. In fact, the enemy is never identified. The Italians did a much better job with the covers on their translation, Orrore su Manhattan (Horror of Manhattan), which has twice seen print (1956 and 1992).

Library patrons will be disappointed. Library and Archives Canada, the Toronto Public Library, and six of our universities have copies.

Related post:

09 April 2017

Canon Scott's Vimy Ridge Poem

Verse written on the occasion of the greatest Canadian victory of the Great War by one who was there. This version of Scott's poem is taken from Canadian Poems of the Great War, edited John W. Garvin (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1918).

Related post:

01 April 2017

Verse from an April a Century Past

Likely the penultimate poem by Toronto's Bernard Freeman Trotter – killed by a German shell the following month – from his posthumous A Canadian Twilight and Other Poems of War and Peace (Toronto: McClelland, Goodchild & Stewart, 1917).

Related posts:

21 March 2017

An Award-Winning Novelist's Bowdlerized Debut

The Pillar of Fire
Gordon Green
Toronto: News Stand Library, 1950

The Praying Mantis
H. Gordon Green
Fredericton: Brunswick, 1953

H. Gordon Green received an Avery Hopwood Award for The Praying Mantis. I wasn't much impressed because I'd never heard of the Avery Hopwood Awards. Now that I'm familiar, I'm still not much impressed. Open only to University of Michigan students, dozens are handed out each year. In 1948, Green was awarded $600 for his unpublished manuscript. A year or so later, he received a further $400 by selling the condensation rights to Export Publications for use in their News Stand Library.

"I was horrified when the paperback came out to see how the original had been murdered," he later wrote. "Only about half of the original was used [and] I look back on my dealings with them with no pleasant memories."

What did he expect? News Stand Library never published a book longer than 160 pages. The Pillar of Fire, the title slapped on the condensation, comes within two of that number (and its pages are very dense). It wasn't until 1953, with Brunswick's The Praying Mantis, that Green's novel was published unabridged. While I can't say it was worth the wait, I will allow that many of the best bits were lost in the cutting.

Have you read Erskine Caldwell? I haven't, but I once collected Signet paperback editions of his books because I liked the cover art. Judging those books by their covers has me thinking they're mildly risqué tales set amongst poor, uneducated folks in the rural American South.

I could be wrong.

In any case, I thought about Caldwell when reading The Pillar of Fire and again when tackling The Praying Mantis. Both versions of the novel were published when Caldwell was at the height of popularity, a time in which his books were selling in the hundreds of thousands per annum. Green didn't share that good fortune.

His novel takes place in rural Ontario. His heroine, Myra Leduc, is a swell-looking girl of nineteen. She lives with her French Canadian father, her English Canadian mother, and far too many siblings. Because the Leduc family is impoverished – again, too many siblings – Myra travels to take a job with Uncle Jurd, her mother's brother. Judd Galloway is an interesting character, though we have seen him before. A successful farmer, he holds great sway over his dry country as the fiery pastor of the Foursquare Gospel Hall. Jurd's Lord isn't merciful, nor is he:
Judd came slowly down the walk. Myra saw the little woman timidly draw him aside, heard her speak. "... I was thinking about Pat," the woman faltered, begging the fevered eyes that looked down at her now. "Pat used to play the fiddle you know. But is was only for the old-time squares and the likes of that. He couldn't play jazz.... And he was a very good man really.... Well, you remember how it happened. That time his car hit the bridge he was... he was coming home from playing that French wedding party... but he was a good man, really.... Don't you think?...."
     The old woman dared say no more. She didn't have to.
     Judd said, "Playing the fiddle for the lust of the flesh, Sister? And for a pagan wedding?" He shook his head slowly, with a terrible finality. "The wrath of ou God is an awful thing, Sister. An awful thing!"
As I say, we've seen characters like Jurd before in American literature. His kind may feature in Caldwell, but I haven't read Caldwell. While I haven't encountered anyone like him in any other Canadian novel, I'm sure they're there somewhere.

Judd is very tightly wound, and things are only getting worse. Myra has come to his farm because her Aunt Belle, Jurd's wife, is dying of cancer. And then there's simple son Matt. "He wouldn't hurt a fly... really," Aunt Belle tells Myra, but Jurd feels otherwise:
"When a lad is mature in his body and not in his mind, he's likely to get a lot of urge that could be mighty dangerous to an attractive girl like you. especially when he's strong."
Judd's warning appears in The Praying Mantis, but not in The Pillar of Fire. It wasn't until I read it that I realized Matt was an adult; the shorter version somehow had me thinking he was an adolescent. News Stand Library was never known for its editing – authors were lucky if their names were right – but I can't really blame the nameless for the
misconception. I come to praise, not bury. In order to make Green's manuscript fit the 158-page format, over half the novel had to be excised. The skill demonstrated is worthy of the surgeons who once worked on Reader's Digest Condensed Books. Green's plot is left virtually intact, which isn't to say that I don't prefer The Praying Mantis. The widow's hesitant query about fiddler Pat doesn't feature in The Pillar of Fire, nor do Jurd's sermons about "writing and jiggling and jitter-bugging and bunny-hugging and flat-foot-floogying" with "niggers". Pastor Jurd of The Praying Mantis is even more reprehensible.

In both books, Aunt Belle dies, and young Myra becomes the object of Jurd's desire. Recognizing as much, the firm-breasted niece flirts, poses and rubs against her uncle to curry favour, all the while enjoying a clandestine romance with a young McGill science student named Napoleon Cadotte. Skinny dipping is a nightly occurrence.

Does that sort of thing feature in Caldwell? I haven't read the man.

Does it feature in Green's other novels. I'm not sure I care enough to find out.

The critics rave:
It's a common lament that Hopwood winners don't keep on writing. The idea is that the novel, or play, or series of poems with which they won their awards somehow ended rather than began something. Their art was an attempt to impose order on hitherto clashing elements in their own experiences. It was, in short, autobiographical, autocathardic, and, alas, artistically suicidal.
– A.M. Eastman,  Quarterly Review,  August 7, 1954
Objects: One of News Stand Library's more competent productions, The Pillar of Fire enjoyed just one printing. I bought my copy in 2012 from bookseller and poet Nelson Ball. Price: C$25.00.

The Praying Mantis passes itself off as a first edition; no mention is made of it's previous incarnation.  With 309 pages of text and a good number of blanks, it's a fairly bulky thing. It was issued simultaneously in cloth and paper. There was no second printing. My paper copy was purchased five years ago at Attic Books. Price: $3.75. It seems to have once belonged to a woman named Eleanor Coulter, who blessed it twice with her signature, and took the time to transcribe Annie Charlotte Dalton's "The Praying Mantis" on one of the book's many blank pages.

Access: Two Very Good copies of The Pillar of Fire are currently listed online by American booksellers. Prices: US$20 and US$25. A third Yankee offers an incomplete copy in very rough condition at US$12 The University of Calgary appears to be the only library in the country with a copy. The Praying Mantis is not as common as one might expect; only fifteen of our academic libraries and the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec have it in their collections. Five copies are listed for sale online, in both cloth and paper editions, at prices ranging from US$3.14 to US$40.00.  I recommend the copy pictured below, offered at US$30.00 by Scene of the Crime in St Catharines, Ontario.