12 June 2009

Bizarre Love Triangle

The Story of Louis Riel, the Rebel Chief
[J. E. Collins]
Toronto: Rose, 1885

Instant books, those slapdash things designed to capitalize on death and doom, nearly always raise a sneer. Still, I can't help but admire the industry involved. To go from standing start to published volume in nineteen days, as did the team behind 9/11 8:48 AM: Documenting America's Greatest Tragedy, demonstrates such energy and determination. Of course, the 9/11 8:48 AM folks, whose book was spewed forth by POD publisher BookSurge, had the advantage of 21st-century technology. Not so this relic from the days of stereotypes, electrotypes and composing rooms.

Transplanted Newfoundlander J. E. Collins wrote The Story of Louis Riel, the Rebel Chief in the spring of 1885, while the North-West Rebellion was being fought. In fact, he laid down his pen sometime in those few days between the Battle of Batoche and Riel's surrender on 15 May. The finished product, 176 pages in total, was available for purchase well before the start of the Métis leader's trial in late July.

How did they do it?

Collins does his part through overwrought prose, evident the the first sentence: 'Along the banks of the Red River, over those fruitful plains brightened with wild flowers in summer, and swept with fierce storms in winter-time, is written the life story of Louis Riel.'

Yes, look to the banks of the Red River because you'll find little of the Métis leader's life in this book. Collins fabricates events, characters and dialogue, creating a world that will seem to students of Canadian history like something from an alternate universe. Key is the relationship between Riel and Thomas Scott, the Orangeman executed during the Red River Rebellion. Collins portrays this unstable, violent eristic as a likable fellow, a whistler, with 'a very merry twinkle in his eye'. In this account, the true nature of the conflict between the two men has less to do with the future Red River Colony than it does with a beautiful Métis maiden named Marie. Her preference for the goodnatured adventurer over the uncouth Riel seals Scott's fate.

While historians refer to The Story of Louis Riel, the Rebel Chief as fiction, it wasn't always accepted as such. Blame falls squarely on the author, who pads the book with footnotes, including Riel's 'Proclamation to the People of the North-West' and Bill of Rights, lengthy excerpts from Alexander Begg's The Creation of Manitoba (identified incorrectly as 'History of the North-West Rebellion') and a comprehensive list of the non-Métis who had lost their lives or had been wounded in the conflict.

The Rose Publishing Company provided further padding with a dozen or so etchings. Only a handful have any relevance to the text – in fact, Riel appears in only one. Though captioned 'REBELS [sic] ATTACKING MAJOR BOULTON'S SCOUTS', a reference to the shared fate of men under the command of Charles A. Boulton, the final image has nothing at all to do with the Rebellion and everything to do with trouble in the republic to the south.

Collins later wrote that The Story of Louis Riel, the Rebel Chief held 'no historic truth', and that he chose to leave his name off the book because he was 'unwilling to take responsibility for the literary slovenliness.' Yet, the author demonstrated no hesitation in appending his monicker to his next book, Annette, the Metis Spy: A Heroine of the N. W. Rebellion (1886) Here Collins not only repeats the plot device that has Riel and Scott as romantic rivals, but lifts whole sections from his previous work. Of this second kick at the can, Collins writes, 'I present some fiction in my story, and a large array of fact. I do not feel bound, however, to state which is the fact, and which is the fiction.'

Trivia: It is said that after Collins' death from drink at age 36, he maintained contact with his mentor Sir Charles G. D. Roberts through the aid of mediums.

Object (and a curious link): Issued in dark green cloth, sans dustjacket, the first edition was published by the Rose Publishing Company, a wing of Toronto printers and bookbinders Hunter-Rose and Company. After Riel's 16 November execution, Collins' work was reissued to include 'The Trial and Execution of Louis Riel', a 16-page Appendix. Though this second edition was also printed by Hunter-Rose, the book bears the imprint of J. S. Robertson. The new publisher not only knew Riel, but as a journalist had been imprisoned by the Métis leader during the Red River Rebellion. Labeled a 'dangerous character', Robertson was later forced to leave the settlement; not that this prevented him from reporting on the rebellion for Toronto's Daily Telegraph.

Access: Our larger public libraries have copies of one edition or another, invariably housed in their history sections. The Rose first is scarce; even Fair copies sell for over C$300. The Robertson edition, with Appendix, can often be found for much less than half the price. In 1970, it was reproduced – in cloth and paper – as part of the Coles Canadiana Collection. Both can be had for under C$30. Coles reissued the work again in 1979 – this time in paper only – with a historically inaccurate cover that offends the eye.

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